April 9, 2004

Mixed Sounds at Berlin Good Friday Concert


Olivier Messiaen Three movements from the "Livre du Saint Sacrement"

Max Reger "An die Hoffnung" for alto and orchestra op. 124

Arnold Schönberg "Friede auf Erden" for chorus and orchestra op. 13

Leoš Janáček
"Glagolitische Messe" for soloists, chorus and orchestra


Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester
Michael Gielen - Conductor

Rundfunkchor Berlin
David Jones - choir rehearsal

Melanie Diener - Soprano
Ursula Hesse von den Steinen - Alto
Ludovít Ludha - Tenor
Peter Mikuláš - Baritone
Joachim Dalitz - Organ

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Mixed Sounds at Berlin Good Friday Concert

by Nancy Chapple

Michael Gielen is first guest conductor with the Berlin Sinfonie-Orchester and has recorded with the marvelous Rundfunkchor Berlin. Nonetheless, the first half's unusual succession of works by Messiaen, Reger and Schönberg came off far better than the monumental work intended to pull all the evening's forces together: Janácek's Glagolithic Mass.

Orgel Konzerthaus

Three of the eighteen pieces in Olivier Messiaen's Livre du Saint Sacrement were performed by organist Joachim Dalitz on the beautiful silver-piped organ in an ornate white and gold frame that takes up half the wall behind the stage in the Konzerthaus, re-opened in historically accurate glory only in 1984. Les ténèbres features big, loud tone clusters, La Résurrection du Christ radiant, fortissimo rainbow colors, with an immensely long and majestic final major chord. L'Apparition du Christ réssucité à Marie Madeleine moves slowly, basking in static sound, only occasionally pausing on a recognizable major chord. The works are not easy listening, but provided a noble, serious beginning to this Good Friday concert with a religious focus.

Arnold Schönberg's highly accessible Friede auf Erden is one of the Rundfunkchor's specialties. Often sung a cappella, the orchestra played a minor role in this version, providing dabs of color, while the choir filled the hall with sound in constant movement as the offset lines slightly overlap. The sopranos produced their highest, most shimmery sound on the line "Waffen schmieden ohne Fährde" (peaceful weapons shall be forged).

Expectations were high for the Glagolithic Mass, combining choir and orchestra with four soloists and the organist. But the elements were disparate, and the work never took off. The orchestra was somewhat sloppy and unclear, with out-of-tune passages in the violins and differences in tuning between winds and strings. Soprano Melanie Diener just managed to carry above the choir, but her sound was undifferentiated. Tenor Ludovít Ludha, despite many performances of the work under his belt, yelled out his part; it seemed too high for him. Baritone Peter Mikuláš had satisfying power and consistency. There were certainly many exciting moments, for instance in Slava, where short biting repeated phrases increased in intensity, and in Veruju, where seemingly unmatched components meshed well together: fast, short phrases in the low strings and sustained high notes in the soprano. Perhaps there was not enough rehearsal time. Or the problem was a dramaturgical one: the soloists were not positioned in front of the orchestra, but rather in front of the organ, with the choir on either side. As their parts are woven into the whole texture, the idea seemed visually appropriate, but didn't quite mesh aurally.

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