The orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin and its conductor-in-chief, Donald Runnicles, made an appearance above stage level this week, performing a program of concert pieces at Musikfest Berlin a week before the opera season takes off. Continuing with the composerly trends in force at the festival this year, the first half paired one of Britten’s best-known works, the Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes, with the rather less-played Les Illuminations, for which the orchestra was joined by tenor Klaus Florian Vogt. The second half of the program was devoted to Shostakovich’s final symphony, the Fifteenth.

Donald Runnicles © Bettina Stöß
Donald Runnicles
© Bettina Stöß

The Four Sea Interludes did not have quite the crispness and clarity of gesture that they need to be convincing. They are less representational than impressionistic portraits of various scenes of nature, and hence are strung together with a whimsical logic that can start to sound a mess unless there is a sharply defined texture and rhythmic identity for each gesture. I did not hear quite enough of this from the Deutsche Oper orchestra, which, on the contrary, sounded a touch out of shape. The woodwind flourishes in “Dawn” limped sluggishly, and there was a general lack of urgency and sense of mission in the playing.

The orchestra demonstrated a little more polish and sparkle at the beginning of Les Illuminations, though the focus and quality of the sound were still not at the level of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra on opening night. The song cycle wends its way through a spattering of mostly disconnected texts, more moods and shades of light than poems with concrete subjects. The vocal lines are agile and light, and the musical grammar is asymmetrical and playful. Written just as the Second World War was breaking out, and as Britten and Pears fled to the US as conscientious objectors, the work has a detached and formal beauty that turns valedictory as the singer, overwhelmed and wearied, chooses in the last number to abstain from the world.

By contrast, Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony – which is famous for its citations of, among others, Rossini’s William Tell overture, the Tristan prelude, and the Ring cycle – seems especially enigmatic following the openly funereal Fourteenth. It is like a cabinet of curiosities (Kunstkammer), full of dusty gems and intricate mechanized parts. It was in this work that the orchestra finally found its stride, hitting the absolutely regular groove of the writing so precisely that each of the instrumental effects leapt into relief. I hope the orchestra’s inconsistency on this night was only an effect of the long summer hiatus, and that when Nabucco opens they will once again play with an intensity and a precision that befits their standing in this city.