The month of February has seen the Berlin Philharmonic undertaking an online festival called “The Golden Twenties”, and it has been an inspired idea. For one thing, it has brought back into their repertoire the work of several composers in danger of falling off the fringes of the western canon (and there can’t be many more effective methods of rehabilitation than a performance in the Philharmonie) and, for another, it’s a subtle yet glorious burst of optimism: wouldn’t it be wonderful if the 2020s contain a fraction of the creativity and vigour of the 1920s?

Christian Thielemann and the Berlin Philharmonic
© Frederike van der Straeten

There were no Berlin Philharmonic premieres in this rather beautifully curated programmed, but it does see the orchestra performing some music they haven’t touched in about a century. There was also some lighter than usual repertoire, the sort of things you don’t tend to associate with a conductor like Christian Thielemann. True to type, he cut a fairly austere figure on the podium, exiting the stage with brusque rapidity at the end of each piece, and never indulging in anything so fatuous as applause. However, he really believes in rarities like Hindemith’s lively Neues vom Tage Overture and, even more so, Busoni’s Tanzwalzer. Busoni wrote the piece as a tribute to Johann Strauss, hence the inclusion of the Künstlerleben waltz, but it’s more fitting to see it as an echo of Ravel’s La Valse, a refraction of his city and society in the aftermath of an apocalypse like the Great War, but with its tongue very firmly in its cheek.

However serious the music, you can’t argue with the playing that it received here. With gleaming strings, glowing brass and colourful woodwinds, including a delightfully snide piccolo, it’s hard to imagine this music sounding better or treated with more care. Thielemann’s seriousness here became a virtue, because he understands this music’s place in its context and he is desperate for it to be more widely known and respected. Consider it done, maestro.

Christian Thielemann conducts the Berlin Philharmonic
© Frederike van der Straeten

Richard Strauss doesn’t suffer anything like the fringe value of Hindemith and Busoni, but the concert ended with a real rarity of his, the Philharmonic playing Tageszeiten for only the second time in its history, the previous performance being in 1929. It’s a setting of four Eichendorff poems for male voice choir and orchestra, and the unusual forces helps to explain why it is so rarely performed. I’ll have to hear it a few more times before I acclaim it as a rediscovered masterpiece: the poetry, like so many of Strauss’ songs, is head-bangingly dense, and the über-Romantic textures seem very tightly woven. However, the final pages of the last song have the directness of a chorale, and are every bit as moving. The small forces of the Rundfunkchor Berlin were spaced out, unlike the orchestra (who undergo frequent testing) and this gave them a slightly breathy sound but, regardless of the music’s quality, it was a treat to hear for the first time a major work by a central composer.

Camilla Nylund, Christian Thielemann and the Berlin Philharmonic
© Frederike van der Straeten

His soprano songs are much better known, of course, and this selection was meant to be sung by Diana Damrau, who had to cancel. Camilla Nylund was a capable replacement, but I admit that the more I hear her, the less I love her voice these days. It’s starting to lose its fullness and, in places, its security, something that took the sheen off Morgen!, and explains a rather too forthright performance of Zueignung. However, the orchestral accompaniment was sensational, Strauss’ glittering nature-painting coming to life with rippling, shimmering life. After hearing that, I could forgive just about anything.


This performance was reviewed from the Digital Concert Hall live video stream

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