Berliner Philharmoniker – Peter Eötvös conducts Xenakis’s Shaar & Varèse’s Amériques – Isabelle Faust gives the German premiere of Eötvös’s Alhambra [live webcast]

Peter Eötvös
Alhambra (Violin Concerto No.3) [co-commissioned by the Berliner Philharmoniker: German premiere]
Amériques [original version]

Isabelle Faust (violin)

Berliner Philharmoniker
Peter Eötvös

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 8 September, 2019
Venue: Berliner Philharmonie, Herbert-von-Karajan-Straße, Berlin

Peter Eötvös conducts Isabelle Faust at the German premiere of his Alhambra with Berliner PhilharmonikerPhotograph: Martin WalzPeter Eötvös not only embraces the new in music, he contributes to it, with distinction. I had the pleasure of reviewing his recent Alhambra, written for Isabelle Faust, when it received its UK premiere at the Proms. I direct you to that critique (link below) for some background. Suffice to say that it was good to hear Alhambra again so soon.

The violinist opens with an arresting gesture, by turns whimsical and acerbic, and when the orchestra joins the travelogue aspect of the score is plain enough, spiced with vibrant colour, teasing incident and second-by-second unpredictably, song and dance being two other aspects (if not the sort you join in with), and Alhambra might also be heard as a ‘concerto for orchestra’ (not so much large as chameleon-like), such is the variety (baritone saxophone, shiny metal percussion, mandolin, the latter in close attendance to the soloist) of the scoring. Faust (once again) gave a wizard account, closing with twilight reflection, backed to the hilt by the Berliners (beautifully clear sound) and the composer in music that surprises and delights in equal measure. So too Faust’s encore, one of George Rochberg’s Caprice Variations (1970).

Interval time; and following it, Iannis Xenakis’s Shaar, an extravaganza for string orchestra (1983) – the specific requirement being Think of every timbre strings can produce, and every technique needed to realise them – then think further – and you have Shaar, a lava-flow of sonic ideas, whether fast and rhythmic, buzzing textures, intense declamation, vicious attacks, extreme dynamics (not least the soft to loud of the final chord), glissandos going to the stratospheres, bass resounding from Deep Earth… whatever Penderecki extended during his heyday, Xenakis went further, and these fifteen minutes were compelling as well as nerve-twanging; fabulously well-rehearsed.

Peter Eötvös conducts Berliner PhilharmonikerPhotograph: Martin WalzAdd in the rest of the Philharmoniker (the platform now packed to the gunnels) for my second Amériques in two days. Following Alan Gilbert in Hamburg (link below), Eötvös and the Berliners also served up an aural feast of Edgard Varèse’s American soundscape, this time in its original incarnation, completed in 1921 – witness off-stage brass (later removed), contrabass clarinet (dropped) and steals from Schoenberg and Stravinsky (crossed through). With his Boulez-like gestures, classically precise, Eötvös and the ultra-responsive Berliners delivered an account that caught the music’s eerie mystery and jungle wildness, ending as an uncompromising powerhouse, a panorama of urban decay … whatever the decibels and the complexity, everything was lucid, a testimony to dedicated and fastidious study, preparation and execution.

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