The stakes in the music world are not as high as they used to be. Marsyas was skinned alive for losing his musical battle against Apollo. These days lukewarm applause seems to be as bad as it gets.
Wolfgang Rihm’s 1999 symphonic reflection on Marsyas’s painful fate opened the second half of the Berlin Philharmonic’s concert for this year’s Musikfest. Andris Nelsons kept his forces taut and toned throughout Rihm’s athletic work. The composer calls it a Rhapsody, though it could also be described as a double concert for trumpet and percussion. Gábor Tarkövi and Jan Schlichte hurled themselves upon the solo parts and their playing was bright and brutal, as the work demands. It was heartening to see the Berlin audience erupt into loud applause for this complex, edgy work after giving such a tired ovation to Heinrich Kaminski’s supposedly “accessible” Dorische Musik before the interval.
Kaminski’s star burnt bright in the German musical firmament for about a decade before the second world war. Today, his music is neglected – justly so, if Dorische Musik is any guide. The piece was programmed by the Musikfest, not by the Berlin Philharmonic or Nelsons, though conductor and orchestra battled their way nobly through three movements of bombastic tonality. At its best, Kaminski’s music sounds like Vaughan Williams on a bad day. It lumbers from heavy playfulness to saccharine sentimentality. Kaminski, an unorthodox thinker and resistance sympathiser, was undoubtedly an interesting figure – but not so interesting that you would want to hear this piece again.
Hans Pfitzner was presumably included on the programme for the amusement value of presenting an admirer of Hitler alongside a supporter of the White Rose resistance group. Unfortunately, his music is better. The overture to the second act of Palestrina (1915) is also reactionary in its way, but it is at least well-constructed and exciting. Nelsons and the Berliners gave it all the weight and wildness that the score demands.
This odd programme was rounded off with Richard Strauss’s Rosenkavalier suite in a performance of astonishing freshness and integrity. Nelsons is direct, eloquent without being fussy, original, but never contrived or precious. He is a risk-taker who pushes things so far that they sometimes fall off the edge, but he is able to regain control in a millisecond. Though the orchestra’s surprise was at times audible, they rewarded him with a burnished tone and considerable polish.