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Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra Plays Carnegie Hall

Baritone  Lester Lynch and Chief Conductor Sir Simon Rattle of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Steve J. Sherman.

At Stern Auditorium on two consecutive evenings beginning on Thursday, May 2nd, I had the exceptional pleasure to attend two amazing concerts—the first one presented as a part of Carnegie Hall’s current festival, “Fall of the Weimar Republic: Dancing on the Precipice”—played by the outstanding musicians of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, under the brilliant direction of its Chief Conductor, Sir Simon Rattle.

The first program began exuberantly with a superb realization of Paul Hindemith’s raucous, arresting Ragtime (Well-Tempered) from 1921, about which the composer said:

Do you think that Bach is turning in his grave? On the contrary: If Bach had been alive today, he might very well have invented the shimmy or at least incorporated it in respectable music. And perhaps, in doing so, he might have used a theme from The Well-Tempered Clavier by a composer who had Bach’s standing in his eyes.

The excellent baritone, Lester Lynch, then entered the stage to admirably perform Alexander Zemlinsky’s solemn, powerful, impressively orchestrated Symphonische Gesänge, Op. 20, from 1929. According to the note by Jack Sullivan on this song-cycle, “Zemlinsky selected his texts from the remarkable anthology Afrika singt—a large collection of Black American poetry from 1929, translated to German—that circulated in Germany and Austria.” The work begins lugubriously with “Song for a Dark Girl” by the celebrated Langston Hughes, followed by the impassioned “Cotton Song” by Jean Toomer, whose 1923 novel, Cane, has attained canonical status. The next selection, the mournful “A Brown Girl Dead,” is from a poem by Countee Cullen, who was distinctive for his preference for classical verse forms. Three more Hughes songs ensue in succession, beginning with “Bad Man,” which is animated, in contrast, and caustic, preceding the poignant “Disillusion” and the forceful “Danse Africaine.” The set is completed by the more lively—if dark—“Arabesque,” by the Harlem Renaissance author, Frank Smith Horne.

It was the second half of the event that was especially memorable, however—a magnificent account of Gustav Mahler’s glorious Symphony No. 6 in A Minor. The opening movement—marked Allegro energico, ma non troppo—startsdramatically with a recurrent, dynamic, driving march but then becomes first subdued and then expansive, if with lyrical and Romantic moments, and also pastoral elements that return throughout the piece; it builds to a dazzling conclusion. The unusual second movement, an Andante moderato, is utterly enchanting and has an almost celestial character for much of its length; the music grows in intensity and then ends quietly. The eccentric, turbulent Scherzo has gentler, playful interludes as well as some portentous intimations, but closes softly. The phantasmagorical, tumultuous, and suspenseful Finale, an Allegro moderato, is mesmerizing, if sinister at times, but is not without affirmative, song-like passages, and it too concludes softly. The artists received abundant applause.

The second program was also wonderful, starting with a marvelous version of Richard Wagner’s sublime Prelude and Liebestod from his landmark 1859 opera, Tristan and Isolde. Also remarkable was the US Premiere of the in its way enthralling Aquifer—co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall and this ensemble—by contemporary composer Thomas Adès. According to Sullivan: 

Sir Simon Rattle has championed Adès and his work for more than a quarter century. In 1997, he commissioned Asyla for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and conducted it internationally more than 35 times, including at his 2002 inaugural concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker, with whom he later premiered Tevot in 2007. In 2020, Mr. Rattle conducted the world premiere of Adès’s Dawn with the London Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Proms.

The composer has provided this description of the piece:

The title refers to a geological structure that can transmit water. It is cast in one movement built from seven sections. It begins by welling up from the deepest notes, before the theme is presented first by the flutes, building to three statements that use more and more of the orchestra. After a breakdown, the theme returns in a slower second section, albeit with more unstable rhythms and harmony; the third section is built on a crawling chromatic bass line. It accelerates into the fast-flowing fourth section, from which emerges a mysterious stillness. The fifth section builds towards a return of the opening material, lapsing then—as before—into a darker slow section with a dragging character. The fast-flowing music breaks through again, culminating in an ecstatic coda.

The event ended splendidly with a terrific rendition of Ludwig van Beethoven’s entrancing Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68, the “Pastoral,” from 1808. About the initial movement, marked Allegro ma non troppo and titled “Awakening of Cheerful Feelings upon Arriving in the Country,” Sullivan astutely says it has “none of the dramatic contrasts in mood that Beethoven normally builds into first movements”; ebullient and melodious with proto-Mendelssohnian qualities, some of it even recalls a Baroque idiom. The ensuing “Scene by the Brook”—an Andante molto mosso—which was an influence on Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, is graceful, with a quasi-Mozartean ethos. The “Merry Gathering of Country Folk,” an Allegro, is vivacious and exultant, briefly interrupted by the thrilling “Thunderstorm,” which has the same tempo marking. The Allegretto finale, the “Shepherd’s Song—Happy and Thankful Feelings After the Storm,” according to the annotator, “builds a soaring crescendo—one of Beethoven’s most ecstatic premonitions of Romanticism”; it is jubilant, although not without serious undercurrents, and concludes ethereally. An enthusiastic ovation was rewarded with a delightful encore: the Slavonic Dance in C Major, Op. 72, No. 7, by Antonín Dvořák.

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