June 30, 2001

Mirrors of Time

The Hilliard Ensemble, Kent Nagano and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin span the centuries with a program ranging from Ockeghem to Mahler to composer Unsuk Chin's tribute to Machaut


Johannes Ockeghem
Sanctus and Benedictus from Missa Caput

Unsuk Chin
Miroirs des temps

Gustav Mahler
Das Lied von der Erde


Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
Kent Nagano - conductor
Jane Irwin - contralto
Richard Gambill - tenor

The Hilliard Ensemble
David James - alto
Rogers Covey-Crump - tenor
John Potter - tenor
Gordon Jones -baritone

Leserbrief/readers comment Druckversion/printversion

Mirrors of Time

The Hilliard Ensemble, Kent Nagano and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin span the centuries with a program ranging from Ockeghem to Mahler to composer Unsuk Chin's tribute to Machaut

by Nancy Chapple

On the last night of June, Berlin's Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester, the city's second orchestra (or third, depending on who's counting), played a fascinating program with the Hilliard Ensemble and two soloists: the first half smoothly combined works from the 15th and 21st centuries, with Gustav Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde after the break.

The Hilliard Ensemble performed the movements from Johannes Ockeghem's Missa Caput alone, plunging the full Philharmonic Hall into the rarefied sounds of a distant era. After a short immersion in the church modes (which meet and then thwart modern listeners' harmonic expectations of major and minor) and the relatively high voices of the four-voice vocal ensemble (contratenor, two tenors, baritone), the audience was uniquely sensitized for Unsuk Chin's Miroirs des temps.

Unsuk Chin was born in Seoul in 1961; after composition and piano studies in Korea, she studied with György Ligeti in Hamburg. Based in Berlin since 1988, she will be the DSO's Composer in Residence in 2001/2002, during which the orchestra will perform her violin and piano concertos. Miroirs des temps was first performed in November 1999 in London under Kent Nagano; this was the first performance of the revised version, which has grown from six to seven movements. The modes and instrumentation are an in-depth hommage to the 14th-century French composer and poet Guillaume de Machaut. The medieval texts, sung in Latin, French, and Italian, deal with love and death; the one modern poem, by Fernando Pessoa, is a beautiful contemplation entitled A morte é a curva da estrada ("Death is the curve of a road"). The instrumentation was imaginative: the four recorders and the mandolin parts are a throwback to an earlier time; the atmospheric use of many percussion instruments, including cymbalom, marimba, Javanese gongs, glockenspiel, and tamtams, help build a suspenseful, sometimes vaguely threatening atmosphere. Sometimes it seemed the lines of the phrases consisted solely of falling notes - though realistically that couldn't be. It was not possible to perceive the ten and then fourteen voices of the crab canon of the third movement "Ma fin est mon commencement" (based on Machaut's composition of the same name which was the original crab canon), nor to hear how the seventh movement - including the text - is a complete inversion of the first, but there was a sense of intricate contrapuntal complexity. In the sixth movement, too, the polyphonic writing swept the listener along, making what would have seemed dissonant if perceived vertically into a fascinating set of overlapping melodic lines.

After the leap into the unknown provided by the first half, Mahler's lush string sounds and the sheer volume of the 20th-century orchestra seemed just as unusual as the Ockeghem and Chin had sounded earlier. Jane Irwin's expressive alto voice had a bittersweet, addictive power. In a certain register, however, her voice was covered, even when the orchestra's overall volume was not great. In contrast, tenor Robert Gambrill was less convincing in his performance of the jollier texts: more strained and somewhat monotonous as a whole. The luxurious, potentially kitschy orchestral sound of the last movement, "Der Abschied", was tempered by the rapid color changes through the switching instrumental groups, the alternation of major and minor, the tempo shifts.

The programming was brilliant: the mix of emotionality and distance in sound and text covered a range of approaches to life and mortality. The 8th-century Chinese poems Mahler set to music tell us to grab the moment, as we never know when it will all be over; in the 14th-century texts selected by Chin, our destiny is outside of ourselves. Ockeghem and Chin sounded ephemeral and distant; Mahler uses the orchestra completely differently, including low-register sounds that hit you in the gut. The contrast was also visual: even when onstage with the orchestra, the Hilliard Ensemble radiated the harmonious intensity of fine chamber musicians. Mahler "looked" different, as the brass instruments glinted at the back of the stage, and dozens of bows moved across the strings in unison.

(This review originally appeared at www.andante.com)