‘The Golden Twenties’ – Berliner Philharmoniker

After the end of the First World War, Germany saw enormous changes. The Weimar Republic, proclaimed after the flight of the Kaiser into exile, meant that the new Germany was a democracy, but not all Germans were happy with the new order. Many were unhappy with what they saw as the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles, many others would have preferred a return to a more traditional order.  

The economic problems of the country increased after the invasion of the Ruhr by France and Belgium in 1923 in response to the lack of payment of reparations – but worse was to come. After the Wall Street crash in America in 1929, Germany was hit extremely hard and suffered from massive unemployment, abject poverty, housing shortages and rampant inflation that would eventually leave the German Mark virtually worthless.

Yet despite all this, Berlin became, for a decade at least, an exciting and fascinating centre of artistic creativity.  Described in the novels of Christopher Isherwood and seen in Bob Fosse’s 1971 film ‘Cabaret’, Berlin became a modernist metropolis and centre of the avant-garde. All this would, of course, eventually come to an end in 1933 with the rise of the National Socialists, but while it lasted Berlin became the ‘Babylon of the 20s’ – a utopian centre of creative freedom for all the thrill-seekers who flocked there.

Otto Dix ‘Metropolis’ central panel (1927 – 28)

Over two weeks of a Covid-hit February, Berliner Philharmoniker presented an online festival entitled ‘The Golden Twenties’ that celebrated the music of this fascinating period. With chief conductor Kirill Petrenko and guests Christian Thielemann, Marie Jacquot and Thomas Søndergård they performed works by Kurt Weill, Hanns Eisler, Paul Hindemith, Franz Schreker and Richard Strauss.

The opening night, Saturday 13 February, saw performances by the Philharmoniker, under its leader Kirill Petrenko, of two very different works:  Kurt Weill’s first symphony, ‘Symphony in One Movement’ (1921), and Igor Stravinsky’s opera-oratorio ‘Oedipus Rex’ (1926 – 27/1948)

Although Weill’s symphony was written in 1921, when he was studying with Ferruccio Busoni, it was not performed until 1957, seven years after the composer’s death. Whilst it opens with some dissonant chords they soon give way to multi-layered sections that alternate between calm and climactic, the calmer passages sounding more like chamber music. This was an exceptional performance which brilliantly brought out the varying textures and rhythms of the piece and it provided a perfect start to the festival.

Stravinsky’s ‘Oedipus Rex’ is based on Jean Cocteau’s adaptation of Sophocles’ Greek drama of incest and murder. The work is sung in Latin, with the narrator’s part usually spoken in the language of the performance venue, in this case by German actress Bibiana Beglau. The US tenor Michael Spyres performed the part of Oedipus, whilst mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk, from Belarus, sang that of Queen Jocasta. The part of Tiresias, the Oracle, was sung by the Italian bass Andrea Mastroni. The members of the chorus, the Rundfunkchor, as befits current Covid restrrictions, were dispersed throughout the empty seats of the concert hall. All parts were wonderfully sung; but Michael Spyres, who I think was singing his role for the first time, was particularly outstanding.

Kirill Petrenko conducting ‘Oedipus Rex’, with Ekaterina Semenchuk and Michael Spyres

Tuesday 16 February saw more Kurt Weill: his ‘Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra’ and ‘Symphony no. 2’, as well as Hanns Eisler’s ‘Suite for Orchestra no. 3’. This time the performers were scholars of the Karajan Academy led by French conductor Marie Jacquot, who looked as if she was thoroughly enjoying herself throughout.

The concert opened with a very enjoyable performance of Eisler’s orchestral suite based on music written for the early sound film ‘Kuhle Wampe’ which, coincidentally, I also watched recently. (It tells the story of unemployment and homelessness among the working classes during the economic crisis and is much recommended.) The Suite is a ten-minute concert version of four sections from the film score. It begins with a lively Prelude which, in the film, accompanies unemployed men racing around the city on bicycles looking for work. This is followed by a more plaintive Intermezzo and then a jaunty Rondo. The final movement, ‘Die Fabriken’ (The Factories) has brass and banjo representing the sounds of the factory machines.

Weill’s 1925 ‘Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra’ is in three movements; the opening uses a twelve tone approach with angular, often agitated rhythms before moving into a second movement in three parts in which the violin, here played by former concertmaster of the Berliner Philharmoniker, Kolja Blacher, duets with first, a xylophone, then a trumpet and finally a flute. The final movement goes back to more agitated rhythms, reminiscent of Stravinsky.

Weill’s ‘Second Symphony’ was partly written whilst the composer was in exile in France, having had to leave Germany. It was a commission from the Princess de Polignac, an heir to the Singer sewing machine empire. Despite the conditions of its writing, the opening movement is quite lively, although sometimes a little agitated, however, this eventually gives way to a march-like largo at the beginning of the second movement, sounding almost like a funeral procession at times, sometimes with a bluesy feel but at other times much darker and more melancholy. The final movement is much more lively building up towards a stirring coda but eventually it resolves to a more calm ending. It was extremely well performed by the Karajan Academy scholars.

The third concert saw the return of the Berliner Philharmoniker, this time under the baton of Danish conductor Thomas Søndergård. The concert was originally planned to be led by Sir Donald Runnicles and to include works by Alban Berg and Franz Schreker; however, with Søndergård stepping in as a replacement the programme was also changed, which explains its more international flavour, It opened with the Suite from Serge Prokofiev’s opera ‘The Love for Three Oranges’, then came Sibelius’s ‘Symphony no. 6’, before another operatic Suite, this time from Kurt Weill’s ‘The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny’.

Thomas Søndergård conducting ‘The Love for Three Oranges Suite’

The concert opened with a lively performance of Prokofiev’s six-movement suite from ‘The Love for Three Oranges’, a zany, surreal opera and one of my favourites since I twice attended the English National Opera’s famous ‘scratch and sniff’ production in 1989. Prokofiev’s orchestral reduction retains the madcap approach of the original and is always enjoyable.

Sibelius’s ‘Symphony no. 6 in D minor’ is, of course, a very different affair, in fact it is different to the composer’s other symphonies. Unusually for Sibelius it deploys the harp, in fact two, although their sound seems a little overpowered by the rest of the orchestra. It was composed in stages between 1914 and 1923, whilst the fifth and seventh symphonies were also being written It has an almost pastoral approach, gradually building up textures which evoke the Scandinavian landscape and whilst the melodies are often beautiful they rarely become exciting. It was not until the fourth, final movement that Søndergård really breathed life into the work and it ended with an almost breath-taking coda before subsiding to calm in the final bars.

The final piece was a seven-movement Suite from Kurt Weill’s ‘The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny’, with the orchestra augmented by the addition of saxophones, guitar and piano. Whilst it was enjoyable and performed with great energy I feel that the orchestral reduction doesn’t really succeed in recreating the atmosphere of the opera.

German actress Dagmar Manzel was the host for the next concert, which recreated ‘A Night at the Moka Efti’. Moka Efti, the legendary Berlin nightclub named after its Greek-Italian owner, Giovanni Eftimiades, was more recently featured in the first series of the German television drama ‘Babylon Berlin’. The club was completely over the top and boasted its own barber shop, post office, pastry shop, billiard hall, a room for chess-players and a correspondence room filled with typists ready to take dictation from businessmen customers. Whilst at night it was one of the most successful dance halls in the city, during the day it was a café and is said to have served up to 25.000 cups of coffee a day.

Dagmar Manzel singing ‘Belin Lit Up’

The concert saw the Berliner Philharmoniker perform 1920s songs and dance music in a programme put together by Michael Hasel, the Philharmoniker’s flautist, who took up conducting duties for the evening. Kurt Weill was again featured with ‘Berlin Lit Up’, ‘Panamanian Suite’ and ‘Little Threepenny Music’. Mátyás Seiber’s ‘Two Jazzolettes’ and Stefan Wolpe’s ‘Suite from the Twenties’ completed the programme.

‘Berlin Lit Up’, sung by Dagmar Manzel, is a slow fox-trot which was commissioned for the opening of the ‘Berlin im Licht’ exhibition, which celebrated the installation of street lighting in the city in 1928 after the opening of the new Charlottenburg power station. The toe-tapping ‘Panamanian Suite’, written in 1934 when Weill was in Paris, was only rediscovered in 1988. It comes from Weill’s music for Jacques Deval’s play ‘Marie Galante’, the story of a girl who is kidnapped and taken to Panama by a lecherous sea captain, she then turns to prostitution in order to earn money to return to France, but ends up being murdered the night before the boat sails.

In the interval and between the music Dagmar Manzel recited from autobiographical texts by Lotte Lenya, the great performer of cabaret songs and twice Kurt Weill’s wife, French entertainer Josephine Baker and German actress Trude Hesterberg. It is a quote from the latter which probably best sums up Berlin in the 1920s: “Everything became shorter: hair, clothes, love and sleep. Life began after dark. Night’s sequinned mantle covered day’s terrible nakedness. Dark figures crept from dark hallways with even darker offers: cigars?, cigarettes? cocaine? That’s Berlin!”

Hungarian-born composer Mátyás Seiber, who studied with Zoltán Kodály, travelled much during his life. He played cello in the orchestra of a ship which sailed from North to South America, he was director of the jazz department at Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, he spent two years working in the Soviet Union and then eventually found his way to England, where he married and settled. He composed a wide range of music: operas, cantatas, film and ballet music and jazz and popular works. Whilst in Germany he composed ‘Two Jazzolettes’, a sextet for saxophones, trombone, piano and percussion, which uses a variety of jazz effects and rhythms, but which also begins to explore twelve note music. It was played with great stamina and skill.

The Berliners brought the same qualities to Stefan Wolpe’s ‘Suite from the Twenties’, a collection of six short pieces written between 1926 and 1929, which together make a joyous, rhythmic whole that includes tangoes and a Charleston, but also again hints of twelve-tone techniques.

The final piece was Kurt Weill’s suite from his famous ‘The Threepenny Opera’. There are eight movements in all, including the best-known numbers from the opera: ‘Polly’s Song’, ‘The Ballad of the Easy Life’ and, of course, ‘The Ballad of Mack the Knife’. Writing to his publisher in 1929, Weill said that “I believe the piece can be played an awful lot, since it is precisely what every conductor wants: a snappy piece to end with.” And so it proved to be!

The festival ended on Saturday 27 February with Christian Thielemann leading the Berliner Philharmoniker in performances of some lesser-known works from the 1920s: the Overture from Paul Hindemith’s opera ‘Neues vom Tage’ (News of the Day), Ferruccio Busoni’s ‘Tanz Walzer for Orchestra’ and the ‘Künstlerleben Walz’ by Johann Strauss II. These were followed by ‘Die Tageszeiten’ (The Times of Day), a cycle of works for voice and orchestra by Richard Strauss.

Christian Thielemann conducting ‘Neues vom Tage’

The evening began with the overture from Paul Hindemith’s comic opera ‘Neues vom Tage’, a satire on modern life and all its problems. The overture is an extremely enjoyable work, featuring wind instruments, saxophones, piano and percussion, with only a small string section. It is a pity it is not more frequently performed. Busoni’s waltz extravaganza,’Tanz-Waltzer’, is also a rarity. Composed in 1920, it is often played in a piano version, but here the original orchestral version was highly enjoyable. Although not to my personal taste, Thielemann and the orchestra gave an excellent performance of Strauss’s ‘Künstlerleben Walz’, written in 1867 and first performed at the Vienna Carnival that year.

The final items in the programme were orchestral songs by Richard Strauss, most featuring Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund, who sang beautifully. The evening ended with Strauss’s ‘Die Tageszeiten’ (The Times of Day), published in 1928, a settings of poems by Joseph von Eichendorff, unusually scored for male choir and orchestra. It consists of four movements: ‘The Morning’, ‘Afternoon Peace’, ‘The Evening’ and ‘The Night’ and was, for me, a pleasant new discovery.

Camilla Nylund singing Strauss with Christian Thielemann and Berliner Philharmoniker

As with the Weimar Republic, all good things must come to an end, and this was a fitting ending to the festival, which, like the cultural life of the Republic, was great fun while it lasted.

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