Widespread social upheaval; a sharp swing to political extremes; the old order toppling, replaced by authoritarian regimes. Not, in fact, an analysis of contemporary politics, but Europe in the 1930s. In an electrifying concert at the Berlin Konzerthaus, the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin under their incoming chief conductor Vladimir Jurowski performed music by three composers who, in these tumultuous times, found their own kinds of refuge high above a divided continent in the mountains of Switzerland.

Arabella Steinbacher © Peter Rigaud
Arabella Steinbacher
© Peter Rigaud
Denounced by Goebbels as an atonal noisemaker, Paul Hindemith cut his losses and fled Germany shortly before the onset of war. He composed his Violin Concerto in a small alpine village in 1939. Like much of his music it is a spiky piece, defiant in its difficulty. It is also home turf for violinist Arabella Steinbacher, experienced in early 20th-century repertoire. Having benefited from a long working relationship with Marek Janowski, the Rundfunk’s outgoing chief conductor, the signs were good for her collaboration with their new boss.

The half-German, half-Japanese violinist wears her virtuosity and musical intelligence lightly. Hindemith’s tricky piece – for both soloist and audience – was here elegant and often tender. Her playing was fluid, her tone shimmering and vibrant. Not just beautiful, this was also a smart and questioning performance. Later this year she will record the concerto with Jurowski and the ensemble – this collaboration will continue to bear fruit.

One year before Hindemith, Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů also fled to the Alps, not from persecution but from his obsession with a young Czech student the (married) composer had met in Paris. Whilst his Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano and Timpani was composed in the heat of passion, during this time he also heard daily news of the threat to his homeland over the radio. Four days after the work’s completion, Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement.

The composer’s premonitions of impending terror characterise the concerto. The instrumental groups are in conflict with each other and amongst themselves. Complex rhythms and angular harmonies collide into each other and are left unresolved. When the two string orchestras converge, it is in a howl of anguish. In Berlin, Jurowski expertly presided over this finely organised chaos and the ensemble delivered real fury at the work’s close.

Sergei Rachmaninov’s exile was self-imposed. Although he was often invited back home, the composer knew that the Russia he loved had disappeared in the October Revolution. Like Hindemith and Martinů, he settled in America, at that time a safe haven from extremist politics. Switzerland provided him with a refuge of a more cerebral kind. During summers by Lake Lucerne, he found solace enough to overcome his writer’s block and compose the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and his Symphony no. 3 in A minor.

The symphony’s wistful themes and sighing melodies speak to the composer’s nostalgia and homesickness. In concert, Jurowski and the ensemble gave this bittersweet rhapsody verve and sustained an energy that hadn’t let up the entire evening. This was a chance for the orchestra to show off its class. The finely tuned ensemble was not only flawless, but exhilarating, and not afraid of showing some grit. This firecracker performance gave urgency to music composed at a time that echoes our own.