Although generally thought of as Berlin’s ‘other orchestra’ (more accurately, one of several that isn’t the Philharmonic), the Staatskapelle Berlin boasts a long and distinguished history of its own, having been in existence for 444 years. Among its star-studded roster of former directors is Richard Strauss, who conducted the orchestra literally hundreds of times in the opera house. His tenure began in 1898, exactly at the time when he was completing the orchestration of Ein Heldenleben. There was thus the feeling that in an all-Strauss programme the orchestra was very much on its home turf, spiritually speaking. Physically, it was playing away: the concert took place in the Philharmonie, the resident orchestra being away on tour.

Anna Netrebko and Daniel Barenboim © Thomas Bartilla
Anna Netrebko and Daniel Barenboim
© Thomas Bartilla

Since the event was a benefit concert for the reconstruction of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden (whose resident orchestra is the Staatskapelle), there was always going to be vocal number in the program. The evergreen Vier letzte Lieder was the obvious (and for a concert, preferable) alternative to an operatic excerpt. Putting the songs on as the first half, and following them up with the much earlier Heldenleben was an interesting reversal of chronology and it threw up some fascinating pre-echoes. For instance, the prominent solo violin in the third and fourth songs received retrospective clarification once the much more extended characterisation of the ‘Hero’s Companion’ through the same instrument was heard, where it famously is a portrait of Strauss’s wife, Pauline. In the earlier work, she is highly capricious, which equates with the impression of her we get from Alma and Gustav Mahler. However, in the fourth song – “Im Abendrot” (At Sunset), in which the poetic persona faces up to his mortality alongside a companion – she is a more lyrical, restful presence. A nice tonal bridge also obtained between the E flat major end of this song and the beginning of the tone poem in the same key after the interval.

I spent most of the first song, “Frühling” (Spring) enjoying the marvellous homogeneity of the string sound, as much a function of the acoustic as the playing. By the second and third songs, my focus was on the rich-voiced soloist, Anna Netrebko, admiring how well she could calibrate her vocal tone. The final line of “September” was simply magical (admittedly, it is one of Strauss’s greatest phrases), although the horn after-echo wasn’t quite immaculate. Her top B flat in “Beim Schlafengehen” (Going to sleep) wasn’t at all pushed, nor even an event – it was just there, tucked into the apex of the phrase. She also warmed the final suspended note in this song deliciously. Perhaps it was only during the final verse of the final song that Netrebko opened up fully, but then she came down again for a murmured rendition of the final question: “is this perhaps death?”

Anna Netrebko © Dario Acosta
Anna Netrebko
© Dario Acosta

In Barenboim’s hands, Ein Heldenleben was a revelation. I’ve never felt so strongly that the orchestra was an extension of the conductor. That is not to say that the musicians played like automata: quite the contrary, there was a palpable sense of engagement from them. However, they were highly responsive to the conductor, shaping their phrases according to his gestures. Having been at the helm of the orchestra for 22 years, Barenboim has clearly built up a strong rapport with the players, allowing for all manner of subtle tempo fluctuations. From the first upward-leaping arpeggio (which sounded as connected as a stream of water), this piece was heroic without ever being bombastic (always a risk in Heldenleben!). The rangy first section contained many nuances of dynamic and tempo, while the music representing the ‘opponents’ [i.e. critics!] was rendered in an appropriately spiky fashion. Wolfram Brandl’s solo was less extrovert than some, but he characterised the ‘hero’s companion’ strongly nonetheless. The ‘battle’ was rendered with gusto, and the harp bed of sound at the beginning of ‘the hero’s deeds of peace’ was simply gorgeous, every note audible without any forcing. In this section the bass and treble clarinets relished their dissonant interruptions (quoting the themes associated with Sancho Panza and Till Eulenspiegel, respectively), and the cor-anglais theme was also memorable. The strings were crisp throughout, and the brass and percussion solid amid the crazy demands of this score.

The appreciative audience gave a long ovation and many bouquets besides (Barenboim tithed each to his concertmaster). Bring together much-loved musical works, the unbelievable acoustics of the Philharmonie, committed playing and superb direction, and a magic alchemy results. Simply outstanding, or as they say over here: ganz ausgezeichnet.