Similar to other creators of all generations – from John Adams to Thomas Adès to Jörg Widmann or Jessie Montgomery – Matthias Pintscher keeps alive today the long-established tradition of authors interpreting their own works in public performance. Filmed earlier in January and released on the exact day of the composer’s 50th birthday, a new video stream features him conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the Dutch premiere of his own Songs from Solomon’s garden.

Matthias Pintscher
© Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

This composition expresses Pintscher’s enduring interest in the spiritual and lyric potential of Hebrew writings from the Old Testament. He is not necessarily interested in the texts’ semantics (a translation was not even provided for this performance), but in the sound values of the Hebrew chant with its specific harsh consonants and rhythmic patterns. The Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs) play between roles, between a man and a woman, is transformed here in a dialogue opposing a baritone voice, uttering the words in all their unadorned simplicity, and different orchestral instruments, from harp to violins to percussion or trumpets with mutes. According to Pintscher’s own comments, published in 2010 (around the time the work was first performed under the aegis of the New York Philharmonic) “the orchestra is like a magnifying glass for what is contained in the sound of the word, like a prism that scatters the expressive content in various directions.” From sotto voce segments to forceful pronouncements, the remarkable German baritone Georg Nigl was less concerned with creating a beautiful sound, in a traditional way, than with making his entries as impactful as possible. (He repeatedly used a tuning fork to ensure he was producing the right pitch, in a score more demanding that it appears.) Mostly letting the voice lead them, the Concertgebouw players helped the conductor portray an eerie and subtle soundscape; modernistic, but not aggressively so.

Georg Nigl sings Songs from Solomon's Garden
© Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

The juxtaposition of the two works on this programme was clearly not random. There are more common points between the Pintscher and Ravel's Ma mère l'Oye than initially “meet the ear”, to paraphrase John Milton. There is the evident reference to a charmed garden in Ravel's final tableau, Le Jardin féerique, and both scores are interspersed with orchestral interludes. Despite the differences in the musical idioms, both composers sparsely used a similarly large orchestral apparatus, shining light on individual instrumental timbres more than on complex ensemble harmonies.

Ivan Podyomov
© Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Principal oboe Ivan Podyomov was as outstanding in his multiple solos in Ravel’s score as he was in Pintscher’s. Other remarkable interventions were those of Miriam Pastor Burgos (cor anglais) in Petit Poucet and of concertmaster Vesko Eschkenazy in the last two tableaux. Originally a five-movement piano duet, Ma mère l’Oye is, in its orchestral suite, a showcase for Ravel’s wondrous imagination, his extraordinary talent as an orchestrator, as a painter of musical colour. Pintscher succeeded in bringing forward a magical world with sometimes menacing undertones, where Petit Poucet seemed lost in the forest and the “Beast” portrayed by the contrabassoon was not as friendly as it first appeared. Composers do often bring a different perspective in their approach to standard repertoire. Pintscher’s careful attention to detail, such as shaping individual motifs or addressing sound calibrations, clearly justify his well-deserved success as a baton-wielding maestro.

This performance was reviewed from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra's live video stream