If there were a gold medal for programming at Musikfest Berlin, it would go to last night’s concert with the RIAS Chamber Choir, Ensemble musikFabrik, and a host of other musicians, gathered under the baton of James Wood. I award the prize (if only I could!) not only for the pieces that were played, both rare and alluring (Ríkadla, a late set of children’s rhymes from Janáček for choir and ten instruments; marches and the monstrous Verborgene Reime from Kagel; and the 1919 version of Stravinsky’s Les Noces, completed in 2007 by Theo Verbey, whose orchestration includes two cimbaloms and a pianola player!), nor only for the marathonic length of the program (which, along with the instrument changes, required two intermissions), but also for the programmatic links that bound this utterly zany line-up. The cheeky “Rübenhochzeit” that begins Janáček’s set, for instance, is linked to the ferocious and unrelenting Les Noces through the theme of marriage, while its short and playful rhymes become Kagel’s hidden ones, bubbling up in broken languages.

Rias Kammerchor and Ensemble musikFabrik at Musikfest Berlin 2013 © Kai Bienert / Berliner Festspiele
Rias Kammerchor and Ensemble musikFabrik at Musikfest Berlin 2013
© Kai Bienert / Berliner Festspiele

Musikfest Berlin has now put on four works of Janáček’s from that significant year of 1926, two years before his death: the two major orchestral works, Sinfonietta and the Glagolitic Mass, the violin concerto, and this set of children’s rhymes. Unlike the larger-format works, Ríkadla shows us that Janacek could be as sparing and pithy in his musical language as Webern was in his; this set shows us just what a modernist folk music might sound like. On the other hand, Kagel’s Zehn Märsche um den Sieg zu verfehlen, seven of which were played this night, gives us a view of an artist whose personality dwarfs even his achievements as a composer. Like Warhol, perhaps, or Welles, you get the sense that what Kagel had to say was always more important than the medium in which he said it. These marches, essentially simple and silly little things, unfold in a manner that I can only describe as fearless. Kagel avoids the linked temptations of fighting history and succumbing to it.

The Verborgene Reime, for chorus and percussion, is a more complicated work. The text, penned by Kagel, takes us through seas of languages, first German, then Spanish, English, Italian, French, and then breaking down, re-emerging in Latin... The phrases are made up literally of rhymes, for instance in the English passage where the choir sings: “muggins raisins muffins napkins puffins virgins twins Redskins... Redskins?” So these are not only nonsense words, but also words that contain both nonsense and deep sense, often sexual or political, the way only children’s rhymes can.

Hence the ironies and sharp laughs of the program’s first half became real horrors in the second. Kagel’s Verborgene Reime ends in a kind of linguistic apocalypse, arriving finally at one last children’s game, the one of pulling petals off a flower to discover your fate. It is both a fatalistic image and one that invokes the theme of compositional method: the games that composers in the 20th century play to either claim or repudiate their control over what they produce. Against this backdrop, the early scoring of Les Noces appears more brutal and more naked, the bearing of a raw nerve that Stravinsky does not camouflage in children’s idioms, or softened orchestration, or harmonic reassurances, as he does in some of his other works. It’s an image of human society in the cacophony of ritual, only barely keeping Kagel’s alienated speech and broken symbolism at bay.