A German composer, pianist, and accompanist Aribert Reimann is perhaps best known for his opera King Lear, written in 1978 at the suggestion of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who originated the title role. He was born in Berlin and began his musical career at Staatsoper Berlin while studying composition, so it was most fitting that a special concert was given to honor his 80th birthday at Deutsche Oper Berlin. It was not a heavily attended event but was filled with genuine admiration and affection for the aging but still active composer on the part of the Berliners.

The evening began with Donald Runnicles leading the Orchestra of Deutsche Oper Berlin in a performance of Sibelius’ Symphony no. 4 in A minor. The piece is full of images of Scandinavian landscapes, dark and brooding, even in a dance-like second movement Allegro motto vivace. Cello is the dominant instrument, especially in the first and third movements, and the principal cellist excelled in bringing out the contemplative melodies of the first several bars of the symphony as well as quietly ending the first movement. The string section all contributed throughout, with skillful solo playing and collective pizzicato.

After a tribute by a fellow German composer Wolfgang Rihm, the stage was taken by soprano Julia Giebel, who performed Parerga from Reimann’s early operatic work Melusine, his first for Deutsche Oper Berlin, based on a play by Yvan Goll. Though brief, the work was extremely challenging as Ms Giebel sang without accompaniment, totally exposed. She negotiated many tricky passages with frequent extremes of high notes with her clear coloratura soprano.

The music director of Berlin Staatsoper, Daniel Barenboim, managed to find time during the house’s Festival to make a brief appearance after the intermission. He performed a short piece on piano using score, presumably by Reimann. The composer climbed on stage to embrace his colleague in gratitude. 

The last performance of the evening was a song cycle for soprano and orchestra, three songs set to the poem by Edgar Allan Poe. As with Melusine, the cycle was first performed by an American soprano Catherine Gayer, so it made nostalgic sense that another American soprano active in Europe, Laura Aikin, was the performer.  

The cycle was written in the language of modern music, perhaps most akin to Berg’s composition with its 12-tone music combined with lyric lines. Again, cello and other strings were dominant players to accompany Ms Aikin.  

The first piece, Silence, introduced the listeners to the world of Poe as illustrated by Mr Reimann, mysterious and gloomy. It was the middle and longest piece, Dream-Land, that fully explored the dark landscape of the poem. Orchestration was extremely complex with intricate strings passages intertwined with woodwinds and brass. The final song, To-, was a brief but brilliant catharsis, led by trumpet solo and ending with string solo. 

Ms Aikin’s clear and yet warm soprano was a perfect fit for the cycle that showcased her expressive voice that remained steady as it rose high. As a native speaker of English, she was able to provide nuance to every word and phrase with often thrilling detail. By the end of the performance, there seemed nothing more logical than the pairing of the English poet’s spiritual world and the 20th-century modern music as assimilated by Mr Reimann.