András Schiff and Hanno Müller-Brachmann make a perfect musical pair. On the one hand, Schiff, staunch lover of the old masters and one of the only pianists left on the circuit who will regularly do a Beethoven or a Well-Tempered Clavier cycle, is as unflashy as you like, moderate, serious. On more than one occasion, he cringed at the sound of applause breaking in soon after the end of a work, and once scampered off the stage immediately with barely a bow, as if he could bear to be anywhere but there. When he does bow, he often holds his hands together at his heart, smiling like a monk.

Hanno Müller-Brachmann © Monika Rittershaus
Hanno Müller-Brachmann
© Monika Rittershaus

Somehow Schiff’s saintly presence merges beautifully with Müller-Brachmann, who is young, energetic, very talented, and sweetly humble in his deference to the older musician. Here was an instance, again in this festival, of an artist who knew how to fit his instrument to the hall, which amplified the most minute of passing notes and inflections, particularly in a pianissimo range. I swear I could sometimes hear his vocal chords open before a note began. But that is also part of his theatricality, which was suitably sombre and a little disheveled for this program of mostly dark and sometimes dour works.

Together, you get an impression of mutual respect instead of friendship or deep intimacy, and it is a dynamic that works for this duo. In the Hungarian composer Antal Doráti’s The Voices, each of the nine central movements is announced by the singer in an spoken voice. But the vocal writing is itself rather speech-like, with the pianist often simply providing the gravity inside of which the singer soars and returns. There is an elastic trust and a quality of wandering in this cycle, which might even be thought of as a rich recitative.

Schiff and Müller-Brachmann also came together for Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death; Schiff on his own played Bartók’s Suite for Piano, Op. 14, which begins simply but ends with a devastating nocturne, and Janácek’s On an Overgrown Path. But the story of the concert really takes place in the encores. I got excited when the bass grabbed his stand on his way out at the first curtain call – surely he wasn’t merely saving some stagehand the trouble? If the concert thus far had been intelligent, composed, dignified, and sensitive, the encores were like a new star system exploding into view. Could it be that Müller-Brachmann was waiting all night, just waiting, to get his teeth into some Schubert and Schumann? He sang as if he had been.

First was “Der Doppelgänger” from Schubert’s Schwanengesang. It is not just the incredible intensity and risk of this singer in this number, his singing at the very ragged edge of possibility, but also just a concentrated magic in the hall that is impossible to describe or account for. Schiff, who is the undisputed master of controlling expansive tempi, makes a universe out of the incredibly spare piano writing. And then, remaining with the night’s tragic tone but turning an energetic corner, the two leapt into Schumann’s narrative song “Die beiden Grenadiere”, about two French soldiers who return from being imprisoned in Russia to find their country taken and their beloved ruler imprisoned.

And thus Musikfest Berlin 2013 came to an end. How lucky those of us were at the final concert to have heard one of the highlights of the entire run, to which I might add Daniele Gatti, Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s Mozart, and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s string section, among many more treasures. Berlin chugs to life over the coming month, its customary institutions resuming season’s offerings as the weather turns cold. None of it will come close to the madness and glorious excess of these three weeks at the Philharmonie.