The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra’s late November concerts suffered the same fate that many others in Europe have endured in recent weeks. They had to accept – wisely under the circumstances – that no live audience was allowed to attend their performances and their invited star conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen had to withdraw because of travel restrictions. As a result of this year’s Covid-caused “musical chairs” among touring conductors, Karina Canellakis (herself replaced only a few weeks prior from a concert with the London Philharmonic Orchestra for the same reason) made her debut with the Bavarian RSO.

Karina Canellakis
© BR | Astrid Ackermann

If she was awed by the experience of conducting in the magnificent concert hall of Gasteig, Munich, she showed no sign of it. Her confidence showed as she walked in and, without a score in front of her, conducted the Serenade for winds in E flat major, Op.7, by the 17-year-old Richard Strauss. With languid movements and an enigmatic smile, Canellakis smoothly led the thirteen players through the fluid tempo changes of this lovely, if seldom performed composition. While the stage was reset, a short but enlightening interview was held with one of the musicians on how the orchestra thinks music can survive despite Covid, the necessary process of digitalisation of live music and other topics.

Another BRSO debutant, Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund, sang Strauss' Op.27 set of orchestral songs. Her perfect diction and her effortless, yet powerful voice predestines her to the late-Romantic repertoire (she is already a regular guest at the Bayreuth Festival). Canellakis maintained a perfect balance between voice and orchestra, as well as within the ensemble, as demonstrated in the opening, ominous brass-filled chords of the first song (performed here as no.2), Ruhe, meine Seele. This was not an easy feat because, with the consideration of safe distancing, the six brass players stood on a side balcony, far away from their colleagues. Nylund’s moving performance of the next song (fourth in the composer’s order), Morgen!, gave an inkling of the Feldmarschallin’s resigned dignity, as she bids farewell to youth and love in the final minutes of Der Rosenkavalier, even if the opera was composed almost twenty years later. 

Camilla Nylund, Karina Canellakis and the BRSO
© BR | Astrid Ackermann

Arnold Schoenberg wrote his Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) barely five years after Strauss' orchestral songs. It represents a different, if you like, “transfigured” world, one that the conductor easily connected with. With her finely tuned technique, Canellakis cut an imposing figure. Without baton, but with suggestive, almost pantomime-like gestures, appropriate to the narrative of the music, her movements without fail expressed the dramatic effect of the music. Her expressive face displayed the whole gamut of emotions, here contorted, there delirious, once anguished, only to turn ecstatic later. At the same time, however, it became increasingly apparent that her conducting frequently described, rather than prescribed, what the orchestra was doing.

It is also worth remembering that in its original conception, this composition with its highly complex, yet delicate lines was written for six solo string instruments. While Canellakis eloquently controlled the flow of the numerous tempo changes, she was less successful conveying Schoenberg’s meticulous dynamic instructions. If the composer repeatedly took time and effort writing out no less than three dynamic levels to be played simultaneously bar after bar (for example, in the Noch bewegter section), it is the conductor’s task to draw the listeners’ attention to such intricate details. Schoenberg’s music carefully follows Richard Dehmel’s poem about two lovers’ pained dialogue about love, loyalty and betrayal on a cold, moonlit night. While the poem-inspired music lost none of its intensity in this performance, the conductor’s sweeping movements tended to trivialise some of it.

The orchestra did a splendid job performing compositions that makes up their bread and butter, the music of the Fin de siècle. Despite the vast emptiness of their performing home, they clearly enjoyed playing passionate music with their fully engaged conductor.

This performance was reviewed from the BR Klassik video stream