As part of the Philharmonia’s Bittersweet Metropolis strand focusing on the music and culture of Germany in the interwar years, Esa-Pekka Salonen curated an interesting group of works designed to paint a picture of the more serious end of Berlin's music world. Paul Hindemith was one of the most influential figures of this period, whose musical language and ideas were widely regarded across Europe. His stature rivalled Stravinsky and Schoenberg by the mid-1930s, but during this period, he increasingly became subject to attention from the Nazi authorities and he was eventually forced to emigrate to Switzerland in 1938.

Christian Tetzlaff © Giorgia Bertazzi
Christian Tetzlaff
© Giorgia Bertazzi

One of the works that met with the disapproval of the party was his opera Mathis der Maler, which portrays the struggle of the artist to survive in a state which is riven with unrest in the depiction of the life of Renaissance artist, Matthias Grünewald. The symphony that is made up of music taken from the opera was first performed in 1934 in Berlin and was met with animosity by Nazi officials.

It’s hard now to understand what they objected to. It is one of the most approachable and balanced works by the composer and an orchestral highlight of the 1930s. Salonen and the Philharmonia fully engaged with the passionate humanity of the work.

The opening movement Engelkonzert, one of the composers most inspired achievements, was beautifully poised, with tempi spot on, so that nothing seemed rushed, enabling the delicate moments to blossom. The final angelic climax saw the true luxury of the Philharmonia sound, with warmth from the brass, at its most impressive. The short delicate slow movement was a lesson in restrained power, despite it being mostly piano. The longer and more dramatic finale was never pushed too hard and again the quiet moments at the movements centre standing out. The final grand chorale was exemplary in the golden blend of sound achieved by the whole orchestra.

A much earlier and more irreverent work by Hindemith known as Ragtime (Well-Tempered) from 1922, opened the concert. At this more carefree point in the composer’s career he was able to indulge in an affectionate massacre one of Bach’s fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier. Its rough high-jinks were quickly over and led directly into the orchestration of two Bach Chorale Preludes by Arnold Schoenberg also from 1922. And a strange concoction they are too, the first seeming to be striving to capture the sonorities of an organ, but failing to clarify the interwoven polyphonic lines. The second, more lively and clearly laid out, sounded as if it could have been arranged by Elgar, complete with cymbals and triangle. The Philharmonia gave it their all, but these chorales were something of a curiosity at best.

Berg’s Violin Concerto from 1935 is one of the great achievements, like the Hindemith symphony, of the 1930s. It is one of half a dozen 20th-century violin concertos, and the only employing 12-note technique, to be firmly established in the concert repertoire. Its appeal rests in the rawness of its emotions and the balanced combination of 12-note themes with folksong and a Bach Chorale.

Christian Tetzlaff seemed to live and breathe every facet of work. Dark introspection, wild grief, anger, ghostly dancing and tenderness – all flowed from him effortlessly thanks to his superb technical mastery. The result was a truly moving experience. With virtuoso accompaniment by Salonen and the Philharmonia, this seemed to be a well nigh definitive performance of a masterpiece.