Helmut Lachenmann is now an elder statesman of contemporary music in Germany. His life’s work has been to create “musique concrète” for acoustic instruments, the goal he set himself as a young composer. His style explores all the noise-making potential of instruments, and has become somewhat of a trademark; his name has become an adjective to describe his many disciples and imitators.

Helmut Lachenmann © Stephan Rabold
Helmut Lachenmann
© Stephan Rabold

With his most recent large-scale work, My Melodies for eight horns and orchestra, Lachenmann showed he is still the original and the best. Following the premiere in Munich last year, Sir Simon Rattle returned to the Berlin Philharmonic to give the work’s first performance in the city. In doing so, he also proved his relationship to what is now his ex-orchestra is one that can still bear rich fruit.

The title, My Melodies, betrays Lachenmann’s mischievous streak in his later years. Ahead of its premiere, the composer gleefully remarked: “everyone will be waiting for a melody, and I will of course disappoint them all!” In reality, the “melodies” are not conventional tunes at all. Rather, this piece is a magnus opus of Lachemannian style, a masterclass in “his” way of creating music.

The performance in Berlin reaped the rewards of the years Rattle spent expanding and enriching the contemporary and experimental side of the Berlin Philharmonic’s repertoire. The orchestra gave a masterful, definitive performance of a piece that will surely become one of the conclusive statements of 21st-century orchestral style.

The eight horn soloists – including Berlin Philharmonic principals Sarah Willis and Stefan Dohr – used breath in all thinkable ways to coax a whole host of sounds from the instrument: blowing, gasping and rasping not just through the mouthpiece, but also the individual valves. The horns were not soloists in the traditional sense, but rather provided the impetus for an ensemble exploration of the boundaries of acoustic sound.

Horn players of the Berlin Philharmonic © Stephan Rabold
Horn players of the Berlin Philharmonic
© Stephan Rabold

The orchestral score was a tapestry of astonishing detail, with every moment presenting a fascinating sound experience. Every “extended” instrumental technique was perfectly threaded into the larger orchestral texture. Yet as well as playing his usual tricks, Lachenmann revealed a new side to himself in this piece, rediscovering a joy in pure tones and simple harmonies that occasionally ring out of the orchestral clamour.

Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic not only had a total command of the exact demands and challenging techniques required; they also brought a dazzling clarity to a dense score, creating distinct waves of pure sound that gather and disperse. This was an astonishing compositional and ensemble achievement, a testament to a master craftsman who has redefined our musical language.

Yet this conductor and orchestra can also make a fantastic racket with the simplest of means. In the concert’s second half, Schumann’s Symphony no. 2 in C major was a glorious, life-affirming performance created with just a nimble Beethoven-sized orchestra. The symphony is autobiography turned into musical drama: Schumann composing his way out of a creative crisis with a work that becomes ever more jubilant and astounds at its own creativity.

In the tentative first movement, Rattle and the orchestra created a whole spectrum of emotional colour through delicate shading of tone and dynamics. The final movement’s moment of revelation and breakthrough – Schumann’s triumph of creativity and will – was an ecstatic climax full of wonderment, where the orchestra seemed to share in the composer’s awe at his own compositional powers.

Rattle had tremendous fun urging the ensemble on to reach ever-greater artistic heights. In turn, the Berlin Philharmonic rejoiced in Schumann’s jubilant melodic runs and eruptions into vivid orchestral colour. This was a performance full of infectious joy that had an air of carefree freedom about it – the uncomplicated pleasure of a no-strings-attached encounter with an old flame.

*****