Here, on paper at least, was a programme juxtaposing programmatic music against the abstract: Brett Dean’s new Cello Concerto nestling between two Scandinavian scores with obviously descriptive content. Though ostensibly abstract in its conception, though, Dean’s work conjured up pictures no less vivid than Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite or the "Four Legends" of Sibelius’ Lemminkäinen Suite.

Alban Gerhardt © Kaupo Kikkas
Alban Gerhardt
© Kaupo Kikkas

We began, however, with the familiar strains of the Grieg. Sakari Oramo unveiled "Morning" with the patience of a benevolent deity, seeing – and hearing – that it was good. And good it certainly it was, with the Berliner Philharmoniker strings providing a dewy cushion of sound against which first Mathieu Dufour (flute) and then Jonathan Kelly (oboe) wove the familiar broken chords of Grieg’s melody – arguably a little knowingly and artfully in Dufour’s case – before we got to feel the full sunny glow of the first tutti. The rest of the suite maintained the highest quality, running the gamut from the most hushed delicacy (in the final bars of “The Death of Åse”, for example), to the bouncy, infectious accompaniment of “Anitra’s Dance” and a predictably rousing account of “In the Hall of the Mountain King”.

Dean’s 25-minute concerto, here receiving its European première, took us into an entirely different realm. Alban Gerhardt started things off with a series of high chirrups occasionally hinting at snippets of song, the orchestra gradually filling in with spidery pizzicati, pointed wind interjections and a trio of percussionists rustling bubble wrap. A Hammond organ, solemnly taking up its position on the Philharmonie stage, offered an electronic lining to jazzier moments; other passages featured drip-dropping marimba or tolling bells, while Gerhardt himself was called upon to employ all manner of innovative techniques, from ethereal heights to scrabbling and scraping in the lower ranges in the cello’s angrier outbursts. 

The programme offered few clues of Dean’s inspiration, and didn’t even share tempo indications for a score that, unlike his previous concertante works, opts for a purely generic title – all we got was a bald "in one movement". Gerhardt himself, however, describes the it as like "a wonderfully interwoven story", and as I listened it increasingly sounded to me as if Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote had found himself, without the companionship of his Sancho Panza, roaming a whole series of weird, wonderful landscapes culled from the imagination of science fiction. 

The cello is not pitted against against the orchestra but supported by it, reflecting, as it were, the protagonist’s own subjective point of view. In practical terms, this meant that Gerhardt, often singing out with a kind of unrooted lyricism, never had to push to be heard within Dean’s complex but transparent textures. The orchestra, though apparently constantly on the verge of nervous break-out, was kept in check – until the work’s turbulent central section, crowned by a strikingly cacophonous climax. It’s a score of remarkable ingenuity and complexity, and one that, ultimately, as Dean’s fantastical world dissolves into nothing, is surprisingly moving. And it was played here with breathtaking commitment by Gerhardt and the Philharmoniker. 

Back on relatively familiar ground with Sibelius, Oramo and the orchestra gave up nothing in intensity after the interval. There was bracing fire and thrust in the first and fourth movements (or "legends") of the Lemminkäinen Suite, the final movement in particular offering a terrific whirl of energy. There was a remarkable sense of tension in the ebbing and flowing of "Lemminkäinen in Tuonela", culminating in some wonderful solo playing from cellist Ludwig Quandt. But it was the melancholy heart of the piece, "The Swan of Tuonela", that was the highlight. It’s hard to imagine it sounding more beautiful, with the gentle warmth of the strings supporting superb, profoundly affecting cor anglais playing from Dominik Wollenweber, suffused with sadness and a faint glimmer of hope.   

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