This concert, one of the final concerts of Musikfest Berlin 2019, gave us the chance to hear the Karajan-Akademie der Berliner Philharmoniker tackling two meaty recent scores. On the spectrum of ‘difficult new music’, the two pieces in question, by Olga Neuwirth and Gerard Grisey, are difficult more in the sense of their demand on the performers; in what they give the listener, each is generous. Any doubts about whether these young players would be up to the task were unfounded.

Ensemble der Karajan-Akademie der Stiftung Berliner Philharmoniker
© Peter Adamik

The first half was taken up with Neuwirth’s Aello – ballet mécanomorphe. Originally commissioned for the 2018 BBC Proms to tie in with the anniversary of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, Aello is scored for string ensemble with flute soloist, trumpet duo, synthesiser and – most notably – a typewriter. What starts out as something whimsical and charming – like a drunk but charismatic person you might encounter at a party – soon lurches into delirium, as the typewriter (Matthias Kessler) tap-tap-taps out the waltzing triple-time meter, the tonal music sways about in search of its key centre, and the synthesiser (Majella Stockhausen) does a deliberately off impression of a harpsichord.

Is it right to call this neo-classical music, again? Perhaps neo-classical music with Botox and a facelift. There is certainly an air of 1930s modernism to Neuwirth’s ballet mécanomorphe (a term borrowed from Dadaist Francis Picabia), and it isn’t the first time she has returned to this era in her music. Susanna Mälkki managed the score with precision and steadiness, and the ensemble played with admirable definition. If the solo flute writing, mostly made up of extended techniques, feels at times by-numbers contemporary flute, Emmanuel Pahud did bring a puckish liveliness to it.

Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, which, after the interval, took up the rest of the concert, is Grisey’s last work. A song cycle on death (the threshold of the title), it sets texts related to death from Ancient Greek, Babylonian, Egyptian and contemporary Western civilisations. It is one of Grisey’s most traditional works in format, and it contains for the informed listener an inherent frisson of uneasiness: shortly after completing this meditation on mortality, Grisey collapsed on the street in Paris, subsequently dying in hospital of an aneurysm.

As with Grisey’s other scores, Quatre Chants is fiendishly difficult to get right. Alongside the individual challenge of the parts, which are full of microtones and metrical juggling, the balance of levels within the ensemble has to be just right in order to achieve the right tone colour. What a pleasant surprise, then, that the Karajan scholars – some of them barely out of their teens – should dispatch it with such precision and, indeed, panache. Whilst praise for directing the players should go to Mälkki (a specialist in French new music), the elite quality of the playing was strikingly evident.

Soprano Juliet Fraser sang the solo part with pathos and a beautifully dark hue, befitting the ensemble’s umbral quality (the ensemble includes two saxophones, bass clarinet, steel drums and euphonium). After fading in from silence through a brushed bass drum, the first movement “La mort de l’ange” steadily built up in tension up till Fraser’s eventual paroxysm. In the third movement “La mort de la voix”, Fraser’s voice was plaintively submerged in the ensemble’s harmonic ripples. The fourth movement, “La mort de la civilisation”, beginning with an outstanding solo for the percussion trio, featured catastrophic screams, all the more moving for the relevance of Grisey’s vision of humanity helpless to suffer an ecological catastrophe.

What a pity it is that Grisey never got to compose the opera towards which he had gradually been building. Listening to Quatre Chants now, two decades after its composition, it is clear that he was himself on a threshold into a new approach to dramatic vocal music – no longer spectral music, but something with as yet no name.