March 31, 2002

Nagano leads Berliners in Schnittke and Mahler


Alfred Schnittke
Concerto grosso No. 2 for violin, cello and orchestra

Gustav Mahler
6th Symphony


Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
Kent Nagano - conductor
Gidon Kremer - Violine
Marta Sudraba - Violoncello

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Nagano leads Berliners in Schnittke and Mahler

by Nancy Chapple

The intention was clear in the recent pairing of Alfred Schnittke's Concerto grosso No. 2 for violin, cello and orchestra and Mahler's 6th Symphony by the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin under Kent Nagano: Put together two works composed almost 80 years apart that both use a range of stylistic elements and take the listener through many mood changes -- and see where the juxtaposition takes us. But the differences were most apparent: Mahler's changes come at unpredictable intervals, but nonetheless follow an inherent logic. Schnittke's jostle one another for attention, continually breaking down into individual components.

The Concerto Grosso makes use of the baroque alternation between tutti and ritornelli passages, but the soloists and orchestra are at such cross-purposes, it's as if they're playing different works. The simple Christmas song Silent night, holy night recurs throughout the work, often played in double stops in the solo instruments. Does it undergo a transformation? No, it simply keeps coming back. Or the theme reminiscent of the slow movement of the 5th Brandenburg Concerto: is it emotionally satisfying to hear a familiar rhythmic figure accompanied by half-tone dissonances in the strings? No, it's like a recent movie chock full of quotations of previous films, a pastiche rather than a successful attempt to create a coherent mood.

The two solo instruments are in almost constant dialogue, or rather, are almost always playing at the same time, each covering one end of the string register. Gidon Kremer communicates great integrity on stage, though his sound is not velvety or rich. The cellist, Marta Sudraba, born in Riga in 1975 and a Kremer protégé, played with a similarly grainy sound; her musical lines with Kremer and with the orchestra were completely convincing - she's a real chamber player.

Kent Nagano and the orchestra came into their own with the Mahler, giving everything they had and playing more symbiotically than on other occasions. With the first movement we're plunged into a tragic story that has already set its course. The lovely duo between concertmaster and 1st horn was interrupted by unsettling muted cowbell sounds with an indiscernible rhythm. The conductor revelled in the grotesque mood of the Scherzo, with mannered and exaggerated gestures for the lead-ins to the two trios. Interestingly, the constant alternation between major and minor thirds in the third movement was not a constituent element, but simply one of many components of the overall entrancing color. The unusual combination of a short melody played softly in the tuba accompanied by a loudly plucked harp in the fourth movement was highly unsettling. And the anticipation among the percussionists was tangible before the famous hammer blows, played here by striking a platform with a large mallet. Though the winds were briefly too high and shrill in the third movement, as a whole the orchestra played together beautifully, in one convincing thought-through concept. The Berlin audience cheered the Easter Sunday pathos in the hugely emotional rendering of Mahler's 6th with many curtain calls.

(This review originally appeared at