Even in a festival anchored around a handful of 20th-century composers touched by the presence of war – Benjamin Britten, Dmitri Shostakovich, Béla Bartók, Witold Lutosławski – the program on Thursday night with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin and their chief conductor, Marek Janowski, was especially haunted by the memory of atrocity. It was a night of tough music with little reprieve. Surely the performance of works such as Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony, subtitled “Babi Yar” after the ravine of the 1941 massacre by Nazis of Ukranian Jews, is now serving the function that Shostakovich’s writing of the work originally did, bringing, from time to time, the reminder of that event in human history to the forefront of our thought.

Marek Janowski © Felix Broede
Marek Janowski
© Felix Broede

The program began with the relatively light Four Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 12, first sketched by Bartók in 1912 while still in the wake of his discovery of Debussy. The work’s sound makes use of sustained cushions of strings and harmonies that shift rapidly from sunlight to darkness, and back again. The final movement is marked “Marcia funebre”, and though it also bears the marking “Maestoso”, there are only a few places where the sound of a march is in evidence; elsewhere, it soars and languishes, attempting a resounding climax, but retreating instead into silence.

Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Concerto funebre was written on the eve of the Second World War, in 1939; he then revised it 20 years later, in 1959, and dedicated it to his son. For string orchestra and violin solo, the concerto has an improvisatory quality, the soloist in a perpetual mood of lament. The last movement, also called a march, takes a somewhat hopeful turn, recalling as it does the darkly folkloric sound of the Sibelius violin concerto. The piece frequently gives the soloist the opportunity to shape and find time for each line, though I found Isabelle Faust’s vibrato not so much excessive as detached from the body of her sound, as if it were plastered on with a brush. I would have liked to hear more variety and responsiveness in her vibrato to the character of each moment, particularly since the violin’s voice is so central to the drama of this work.

Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony, which has also been called a cantata or a song cycle, takes us through crucial and horrific events surrounding the dark heart of the Babi Yar massacre, one of the deadliest in the war. Significantly, it was sung on this night by the bass Günther Groissböck and the Estonian National Male Choir in German, continuing proof of this country’s commitment to reiterating a public memory of the war. It is always a special occasion to hear this work, though the choir occasionally sounded strained, and Groissböck showed some signs that the score was still fresh (he was visibly counting during some rests, and his upbeat entries were never quite relaxed). But this hardly detracted from his wonderfully rich and velvety voice, which managed to be warm even as it competed to be heard above Shostakovich’s massive orchestra.

***11