A few nights after the Berliner Philharmoniker brought us Janáček’s late masterpiece, the Glagolitic Mass, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and conductor Tugan Sokhiev took the stage with his other great work from the same year, 1926: the Sinfonietta, Op. 60, which originally appeared with the modifier “Military”. No doubt Janacek wanted to divert attention from a literal association with war music to loftier images. But it is hard to ignore the extra row of trumpets and tubas arrayed across the stage, or the opening that shoots a brass duet through with blasts from the timpani.

Tugan Sokhiev © Patrice Nin
Tugan Sokhiev
© Patrice Nin

It is, no doubt, a celebratory work, as the Glagolitic Mass is. But the Sinfonietta is more transparent and more public than the Mass, though it too shows some complex writing in the middle movements, each of which depicts a location, or an iconic place in Czech life: the castle, the monastery, the street, the castle. But what is most memorable in the work is the way the orchestral sound exults in a brassy bath, giving the piece a rhythmic punch and an organ-like support throughout.

The brass musicians on this night were, thankfully, superb players. It seemed as though openness and roundness of sound somehow became a theme with the second number, Martinů’s Rhapsodie, a concerto for viola and orchestra that was played with soloist Maxim Rysanov. If all violists could sound like this, then there should be fewer violin and cello concertos on orchestra programs, for we are hearing too little of this instrument’s possibilities. In Rysanov’s playing it is eminently clear how the benefits of mixing a cello’s depth and grit and a violin’s fluidity manifest themselves. But Rysanov also finds a particular sound of his own, surely with the help of Martinů’s generous writing, resonant and long-bowed. He came out to play an encore, a Hungarian folk piece complete with foot-stamping (at which the Philharmonie crowd murmured approvingly) which argued, in its own small way, for the greater visibility of the viola virtuoso.

Then, with the orchestra joined by the Ernst Senff Chor, it was the orchestral suite from Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin, a long journey through dark city streets and material too shocking for its first audiences to bear. Thanks to the festival’s focus on a handful of composers, we have the chance to hear both this suite and The Wooden Prince, his other one-act ballet, back-to-back (the latter will be played by the Berliner Philharmoniker when it returns to the Philharmonie on Thursday). The opening music, swarming strings that are meant to evoke the chaotic modern city, bring to mind the frenzy of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest as much as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. It is such a pleasure to hear these works alongside the rest of a composer’s major output; to know that Bartók could do this and the Concerto for Orchestra is to see a man who could switch modes from public to private art, to find the means by which his music could satisfy under entirely different circumstances.

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