Like the Weimar Republic itself, the Philharmonia Orchestra’s Bittersweet Metropolis tribute to the music of that era came to an end with a thud, an emphatic if sardonic one at the conclusion of Hindemith’s raucous dances from his mixed-media show Das Nusch-Nuschi. The combination of invention with devil-may-care extravagance seemed the perfect summing up of the Republic’s musical legacy,and the short suite was played with plenty of verve under Esa-Pekka Salonen’s eagle-eared direction. Fortunately we were spared the visuals, given that the printed programme reminded us that Hindemith required the last of the three sections to be “danced (or rather wobbled to) by two eunuchs with incredibly fat and naked bellies”.

Esa-Pekka Salonen © Clive Barda
Esa-Pekka Salonen
© Clive Barda

However, the preceding elements in this fascinating concert, subtitled ‘The Party’s Over’, had taken a more serious path, although Busoni’s Doktor Faust, Weill’s Concerto for Violin and Wind Instruments and Berg’s Lulu all perform balancing acts to varying degrees between tragedy and comedy. The Two Studies that the Berlin-based Busoni extracted from his Faustian opera-in-progress for concert performance date from the very beginning of the Republic’s existence in 1919. A funereal Sarabande is followed by a galop-style Cortège, both cast in an autumnal, clouded range of tone colours that Salonen and the orchestra caught in all their subtle detail, with some especially finely wrought string unisons towards the start. It really is time the full opera, which was left unfinished at Busoni’s death in 1924 but existing in two posthumous completions, returned to a British stage again after ENO’s triumph with it in the 1980s.

Lulu, also unfinished at the time of its composer’s death, is a somewhat more familiar fixture of our opera houses. Like Busoni, Berg made a suite in advance of his opera’s intended completion as what we would today term a trailer, premiered in Berlin 1934 just as his music was about to be banned by the Nazi regime. But strictly speaking, the Viennese Berg’s Weimar associations were more tangential than participatory, though one can hear the strong influence of the Berlin ethos in his use of saxophone and vibraphone. As with the Busoni, this suite was given a performance that made one want to go and hear and see the whole opera again straight away. Salonen’s mastery in music of this period was there in every bar, coaxing out its textural translucency while searing the heart with the pull of its post-Mahlerian emotional manipulation. Soprano Rebecca Nelsen’s vocal contribution to the brief Lied der Lulu and concluding encomium was so effective in taking the listener into the character that one wished Berg had included more of Lulu’s music in his suite (Nelsen performed the whole role in Leipzig last season).

The purely instrumental heart of this programme was Weill’s Violin Concerto, a representative example of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) that characterised much of the Weimar musical ethos of the 1920s in wanting to strip away the Romantic excesses and Expressionism of previous decades. It would be hard to think of a more convincing soloist than Christian Tetzlaff, who, despite this not being exactly a repertoire concerto for most violinists, gave the impression of it being a key work, being in complete command of its combination of sinuous, austere lyricism and cutting-edge rhythmic verve. The accompaniment of wind, brass and percussion (plus double basses) was crisply and characterfully performed by the Philharmonia players, and Tetzlaff turned the hell-for-leather finale into a real tour de force of violinistic virtuosity.

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