On paper, this programme looked interesting and intriguing. And so it proved, but while the first half was fascinating and invigorating, the second left me scratching my head, showing once again that 20th-century repertoire is often interpretatively much more straightforward, in our post-authenticity age, than Mozart.

Christiane Karg © Gisela Schenker
Christiane Karg
© Gisela Schenker

Iván Fischer’s idea to juxtapose Enescu’s Prélude à l’unison with Bartók’s Music for Strings Percussion and Celesta was an inspired one. At just eight minutes long, the Enescu – the opening movement of his Orchestral Suite Op. 9 – charts a course from a questioning, almost speech-like opening, through an intense central climax in which the strings are joined by increasingly thunderous timpani, to a quiet close.

On one level here it was a showcase for the famed string sound of the Berliner Philharmoniker, given yet greater uniformity by the players being set out in two groups as per Bartók’s instructions for his work (there’s no mid-half rejigging of platform layout at the Philharmonie). Fischer encouraged a rhythmically free approach that emphasised the work’s improvisatory quality, as if the two-dozen players on the stage were, with one mind, coming up with it on the spot. The discipline and unanimity, paradoxically, brought with it a thrilling sense of freedom.

In the context, the eerie counterpoint of the Bartók’s opening movement felt as if the thick winding rope Enescu’s Prélude had been unravelled into several smaller strands, which the Hungarian composer was now ingeniously interweaving. The patient concentration in the first movement was contrasted with terrific Schwung and sweep in the two faster movements, while the discipline and chamber music-like clarity Fischer and his players brought to the Adagio made it all the more chilling and unsettling.

If only the same conviction had defined the second half, devoted to Mozart: two early arias followed by the “Prague” Symphony. There was no faulting Christiane Karg in the two arias, “Lungi da te, mio bene” from Mitridate, re di Ponto and the concert aria “Misera, dove son!”. She sang both with impeccable taste, her lovely lyric soprano under complete control, even if the well-upholstered sonic cushion provided by the orchestra emphasised the voice’s lack of assertive edge. Félix Dervaux, positioned at the front of the platform and playing from memory, brought similar gentle elegance to the horn obbligato in the Mitridate aria.

The main let-down was the symphony, in which Fischer plumped for an unconvincing interpretative Third Way. We had the swift tempos – the Andante certainly didn’t hang about – and curt, clipped phrasing of period-instrument performances, but too little the attendant vigour and energy. From ‘traditional’ performance we had the control and urbanity, but none of the grandeur.

The first movement’s Adagio introduction was reined-in and strangely unimposing. There was a prissiness to the way that the development was pared down to a pianissimo just as it was approaching its point of highest tension. The Andante was similarly not allowed to express itself fully; it wasn’t until the finale, the most satisfying of the three movements, that we finally heard the orchestral sound fully unleashed – albeit only briefly.

The playing itself was beyond reproach, that of the wind section in particular – especially in the finale. After such a fascinating first half, though, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed by this non-committal Mozart.