As my seatmate remarked to me after the concert, it is strange and wonderful to hear Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich, who befriended each other late in life, begin to sound alike in their old age while remaining unmistakably themselves. I agreed. Here were two works, written six years apart, and both within six years of each composer’s death: Britten’s Phaedra and Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony. Though one is called a dramatic cantata and the other a symphony, they are both really unstaged dramatic works that might better be called oratorios if they weren’t so resolutely secular.

Mahler Chamber Orchestra © Sonja Werner
Mahler Chamber Orchestra
© Sonja Werner

The Mahler Chamber Orchestra was directed this night by Teodor Currentzis, a Greek conductor who has made a name, or anyway a reputation, for himself in the Russian scene. In Phaedra, which draws impressionistically from the Racine play of the same name, the orchestra was joined by German soprano Angela Denoke, a marvelous dramatist. She can make a laugh and a bray as musical as a held note, finding the beauty in a range of utterly human noises. There was a wonderful moment in the final Adagio of the work in which both Denoke and the strings, coming to a heaving climax, found the same articulation, a length and a pressure in each note that was somewhere between a tenuto and a slur. It was a way of speaking, or perhaps of crying, that would be impossible to replicate in notation.

Petr Migunov, the bass who joined Denoke in the Shostakovich symphony, is as wonderful an actor as she is, as convincing in his proletarian weariness as in his old-world rage. The symphony, which is dedicated to Britten, is a Mahlerian song cycle whose texts are taken from four poets of four different countries: Lorca, Apollinaire, Küchelbecker, Rilke. Currentzis may deserve credit for both his musical direction and his dramaturgy, for the symphony was presented unmistakably as a piece of theater. This is a conductor who certainly does not disappear when coordinating soloists and an ensemble – quite the contrary, he is impossible to ignore. It must be said that the orchestra played with an incredible intensity all night, though it nevertheless looked lethargic next to Currentzis’ gymnastics. I have no comment about whether a conductor ought to do as little as necessary on the podium, or whether putting on a show is part of the job. Certainly Currentzis is not the only, or the worst, culprit among today’s young conductors. I will say only that his approach sometimes sacrifices a resonant sound for the stirring gesture; his theatricality on the podium also often overshadows the singers who are working so hard at his side.

Yet, I have to admit, his theatricality does encourage the imagination. What remains most in my memory after this program is a sound that both of these composers reached for when describing a vision of posthumous life, the sound of high, soft, unison strings, sometimes paired with a distant bell or drum – a sound that leaves an emptiness and a hollowness below. Currentzis, these singers and this orchestra made this hollowness palpable.