MaerzMusik is big on ideas. This year’s festival, the fourth edition under the directorship of Berno Odo Polzer, was jam-packed with discussions, conferences and exhibitions discussing capitalism, gender, defragmentation and time. There was also music – with a strong emphasis on the multi-media and electronic, featuring artists such as Ashley Fure, Terre Thaemlitz and Mark Fell. The big idea behind Ensemble Resonanz’s performance at the Berlin Philharmonie was “disappearances” (although MaerzMusik preferred the snappier title ‘Migrants’) featuring a world première from Georges Aperghis as well as a new chamber orchestral arrangement of Janáček’s The Diary of One who Disappeared by Johannes Schöllhorn. Both works were well-handled treatments of their subject matter, yet were burdened by an overwrought conceptual framework.

In his orchestration of the Diary, Schöllhorn wanted to bring out the political resonances in the libretto and avoid its usual biographical associations. For him, the story of Janek, a young farmer who leaves home to live with a gypsy woman, is not just an expression of the married Janáček’s obsession with the young Kamila Stösslová (although in his letters the composer made his identification of her with the gypsy woman explicit), but rather is about the mass migrations from rural communities that followed industrialisation in the 19th century. Changing the tenor lead to soprano certainly lessens the sense you could be listening to the composer’s own diaries. Yet the evocative, sensuous and emotionally charged score is consumed by the personal rather than the political.

Janáček’s original piano accompaniment is spun out into a colouristic and scenic setting for strings, piano, harp and percussion – a deliberate nod to Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Schöllhorn creates inventive musical vistas for each of the work’s 22 movements, with Bartókian melodic-driven textures and folk stylisations reminiscent of Romani music, all peppered with fragmented, lushly Romantic melodies, climaxing with an ecstatic outpouring of agonised longing. Soprano Agata Zubel gave a restrained and intimate performance with dramatic and vocal versatility, countered by the robust yet mellow voice of mezzo-soprano Christina Daletska as the gypsy girl Zefka. Ensemble Resonanz gave a first-rate account of the work under Emilio Pomàrico.

Georges Aperghis’ migrants is a response to the European refugee crisis, written as an effort to give a voice to those he says are “treated like animals.” In this spirit, he uses texts written by migrants as well as fragments from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to try and create an aesthetic expression of unimaginable misfortune. Written for the same instrumentation as Schöllhorn’s orchestration of Janáček, migrants was originally conceived as three inserts into the work, although at the première it was performed as an addendum to the Diary.

The interconnectedness of Asperghis’ and Schöllhorn’s works, and indeed the overarching conceptual framework for the whole project, is rather unconvincing, but no matter: for what it lacks in musical complexity, migrants is a serious-minded and sensitive treatment of a difficult subject. Aware of the difficulties of making human suffering into art, Asperghis robs the ensemble of pitches, creating textures from delicate string pizzicati and clusters of metallic string harmonics that he refers to not as music, but as an “energy” that sets a landscape for the text fragments, which are always spoken. Pomàrico and Ensemble Resonanz found righteous fury and anguished depths in Asperghis’ score, which was a small but decent and humanistic gesture in the face of inconsolable hardship.