Although a British composer by birth, Rebecca Saunders is most respected in Germany, where she has spent much of her working life. Having studied with Wolfgang Rihm, Saunders has been composer-in-residence at both the Konzerthaus Dortmund and Staatskapelle Dresden. Her music’s fanatical attention to detail and exacting demands on both performers and listeners has much in common with contemporary German and Austrian composers such as Helmut Lachenmann and Beat Furrer.

Carolin Widmann © Marco Borggreve
Carolin Widmann
© Marco Borggreve

Saunders’ latest project was a programme with the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie based around her violin concerto still. This crack youth orchestra have a serious commitment to new music – at the Musikfest Berlin, they will perform Ligeti’s Violin Concerto and Varèse’s Déserts with conductor Jonathan Nott. In this project, the orchestra were challenged not only musically but through an immersive choreographed performance in collaboration with director Jochen Sandig, choreographer Antonio Ruz and dancers from the Sasha Waltz company.

The resulting programme, entitled “UN/RUHE”, not only integrated dance and movement into the musical performance, but included orchestra and soloists in the choreography, creating a supremely theatrical event. At Berlin’s Radialsystem V, the performance began in an adjoining hall, in which the orchestra stood silently, dispersed throughout the room. The audience, at first perplexed, became hushed as the players slowly took off their shoes and left the room. This was a bold visual statement that functioned as a kind of initiation into this serious-minded programme.

Having relocated to the main auditorium (the orchestra still bare-footed), Saunders’ concerto was preceded with Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan und Isolde, its gathering momentum thrillingly played by the orchestra under conductor Sylvain Cambreling, and matched by a slow crescendo of light. The prelude’s final bars had barely died away when violinist Carolin Widmann abruptly shattered the silence with the opening bars of still.

Written for Widmann in 2011, still is an astonishing sensory experience that takes its lead from the soloist’s ability to conjure a fantastic array of furious unearthly sounds from her instrument. The orchestral writing conjures up a hulking great beast that lumbers in the soloist’s wake – together the ensemble and soloist create pure sound of gut-wrenching power.

At Radialsystem, Antonio Ruz’s choreography mediated this visually, at first positioning the dancers throughout the orchestra as if playing visual instruments, then bringing them together with Widmann in the calmer second movement to create a mass of slowly writhing bodies, with orchestra members rising and falling like organic matter. Although the engineering of Saunders’ music is technically remarkable, still was felt at a visceral level rather than comprehended. The dedication and maturity of the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie meant that the piece bypassed the head and appealed straight to the central nervous system. 

After a good hour of complete sensory overload, the tireless members of the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie returned for a performance of the Lulu Suite, Berg’s symphonic paraphrase of his unfinished second opera. Soprano Ana Durlovski was coy and controlled in the central Lied der Lulu, and the orchestra dug into the extremes of light and shade before finding a stunning breadth in the final Adagio. However, not much could match the stunning vividity they had found in still.