The Berliner Philharmoniker’s Academy is the future of this city’s most famous orchestra. Established 40 years ago by Herbert von Karajan, a third of current Berliner Philharmoniker members are Academy graduates. As well as regular tuition from current Philharmonic members, students work with Sir Simon Rattle and guest conductors to present a series of public concerts in the Philharmonie. Their final project this season was an “Akademie Modern” with Susanna Mälkki, who boasts a long and serious engagement with the avant-garde: for seven years she was the Music Director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, founded by Pierre Boulez in 1972.

Susanna Mälkki © Simon Fowler
Susanna Mälkki
© Simon Fowler

Boulez was a recurring presence in Mälkki’s performance with the Academy ensemble. In the first half, two interlinked works by the composer were twinned with Stockhausen’s Zeitmaße, which Boulez premiered in 1956 having met the precocious young German composer at Darmstadt, a cradle of the post-war avant-garde. This short piece for wind quintet captures what Stockhausen saw as the fragmentary and unsynchronised modern experience of time, using extremes of tempo to create a fluid and unpredictable work. Mälkki and the ensemble had a firm grasp of this complex and shifting work, bringing serious thought to a more mischievous piece that Stockhausen said he chuckled at when first conceiving.

A constant editor and reviser of his own work, Boulez based his 1984 chamber work Dérive 1 on two earlier pieces, the large-scale Répons and the cello ensemble piece Messagesquisse, the latter of which was here performed alongside its ‘derivation’. Dérive 1 is a delicately crafted work that is generated from the same six tones Boulez used in Messagesquisse, musical substitutes for the letters of its dedicatee’s last name, the conductor Paul Sacher. The young musicians of the Academy shattered the pristine fabric of Boulez’s composition with a weighty and gutsy performance that found a vivid intensity in the work’s serene stillness.

Messagesquisse is full of musical messages. Composed for Sacher’s 70th birthday, it is a work for seven cellos – one soloist and a supporting ensemble of six – that consists of four movements that together should last seven minutes. It is an extraordinary study of the instrument’s resonance that was brought to life in performance by Berlin Philharmonic musicians present and future. Academy students were joined by current orchestra members and their charismatic principal, Bruno Delepelaire as the soloist – himself a former Academy graduate. The deep, rich tone of the ensemble was breathtaking, truly fearsome in the swarming unison of the fast movements. Delepelaire too was phenomenal, finding profound poeticism in the complex disjointed solo passages.

Boulez’s legacy in contemporary music was evident in the final work of Mälkki’s performance with the Academy, Michael Jarrell’s 1994 dramatic work Cassandre. Mälkki recorded the work with the Ensemble Intercontemporain in 2009, and the Swiss composer is a graduate of Boulez’s IRCAM centre, the engine-room of the French avant-garde situated in the bowels of Paris’ Centre Pompidou.

Cassandre is a monodrama for narrator and ensemble that, like Schoenberg’s Erwartung, uses a stream-of-consciousness libretto delivered by a female protagonist. Based on Christa Wolf’s 1983 novel, it sets the recollections and visions of the Trojan princess Cassandra whilst imprisoned in Mycenae, awaiting her death at the hands of Clytemnestra. Writing in communist East Germany, Wolf saw the contemporary relevance of Troy, a tightly controlled police state, and the feminist importance of Cassandra, the seer whose visions are censored and ignored. Indeed, Jarrell was compelled to set the text after the horror of the Yugoslav conflict and the testimony of Kosovans who had witnessed their families raped and killed, powerless to intervene. For Jarrell, this is also the fate of Cassandra: “She is condemned to see things, but she cannot act.”

Jarrell calls the work a “long coda”, mirroring Cassandra’s recollections and visions with intricate impressionistic figurations of recurring harmonic and thematic material. Mälkki and the Academy ensemble brought plenty of zest and life to Jarrell’s inventive use of orchestral timbre, which makes the most of an enlarged percussion section and integrated live electronics. They gave plenty of propulsion to a score that seems to be disintegrating along with the protagonist’s fragmentary mental state. It was down to these outstanding musicians and a powerful Cassandra from French actress Fanny Ardant that the work never sagged or lost momentum.

As well as being a virtuosic ensemble achievement, this was a brave and forward-looking piece of programming that shone the spotlight not only on the young musicians of the Academy, but on an ambitious contemporary work by a living composer – a good night for the future of the Berlin Philharmonic.