An Italian, and possibly a Swiss, Symphony at the Philharmonie

By Rebecca Schmid

Journeys have provided powerful inspiration to writers, painters and composers alike, opening eyes to new ways of seeing the world. The broadening of artists’ palettes has sometimes allowed them to capture a landscape more vividly than the natives could themselves. One only has to think of Dvorak’s New World Symphony, Gauguin’s portraits of French Polynesia (colonialist considerations aside), and—at least for an outsider— Mendelssohn’s Fourth, or Italian, Symphony. Riccardo Chailly, guest conducting the Berlin Philharmonic on January 9, juxtaposed this work with Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony, which in a similar vein was likely inspired by a trip to either Switzerland or Upper Bavaria.

Bruckner is easily the most provincial Romantic composer to have entered the symphonic canon, having rarely ventured outside his native Austria and devoting much of his opus to sacred works. Passages of the opening movement of the Sixth deviate strongly from the stormy, fretful tone one associates with his symphonies, with an exotic modal brass motive and a positively sunny melody for the violins. Program notes suggest that an underlying, one could say proto-minimalist, string texture represents the motoric drive of a train, while the trumpets herald new earthly vistas. Chailly’s vigorous, scooping gestures brought out the might of the Philharmonic.

The following Adagio brims with Mahlerian stillness, which the conductor savoured to melting effect. Even if Bruckner was not referring to the Swiss Alps, he suggests a heaven on earth that sounds very close. It is also worth noting that Mahler made several changes to the symphony before it had its first full performance in 1899, 18 years after Bruckner had completed it. By the third movement, the composer has—at least stylistically—returned closer to home terrain, with menacing blows of fate and bombastic, descending tutti passages, although there is an almost classical alternation between forte and piano sections.

The finale further vacillates between the serene and the tempestuous, with declamatory Wagnerian harmonies in the brass contrasted against delicate, protesting pizzicati and a fleeting waltz-like melody that, in the context of a journey, indicates a certain wistfulness for the fatherland. The symphony ends with a fervor that Chailly brought to a resounding close. Although the horns of the Philharmonic have even more precise on other occasions, it hardly mattered in the wider scheme of this bracing performance.

Mendelssohn’s Fourth emerged with tremendous care for dynamic contrast and shape of phrase as Chailly held thorough, but unaffected, control over the orchestra. Most impressive were the perfectly-built crescendi and decrescendi that emerged, particularly in the third movement Con moto moderato, and beautifully rounded, legato lines. Mendelssohn’s economic orchestration at times calls to mind a chamber ensemble, which the Philharmonic brought out through its characteristically tight communication between sections, particularly in the last two movements.

Concert Master of the evening Daishin Kashimoto led the violins with great precision, although the sound could have been warmer in fortissimo passages. Solo Clarinettist Andreas Ottensamer played with particular finesse in the Andante movement, characterized by sensuous, swelling lines throughout the orchestra and a touch of melancholy. True to his ‘German’ spirit, Mendelssohn does not only convey the pleasures of fine wine and sunshine but a deeply introspective, nostalgic view of the world. Perhaps this is why his symphonic portrait of Italy resonates so strongly.

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