Ever since I first visited Berlin fourteen years ago, there has been only one symphony orchestra for me, and that was the Berlin Philharmonic led by Simon Rattle. I followed them faithfully, not only on their home turf but also at Carnegie Hall in New York, and I was always suitably thrilled. But now that Rattle is leaving Berlin for London, I decided to explore the other local options, and luckily I landed on a great one: Vladimir Jurowski and his superb Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin. It turns out that the rock-star glamor Rattle brought to Berlin’s classical music scene, luring new audiences of all ages and backgrounds to the symphony hall, has found its latest embodiment in the entrancing Jurowski.
The RSB, one of Germany’s excellent radio orchestras, has been around for years, but it is only this year—this very month, starting last Sunday—that Jurowski has taken over as principal conductor. I had heard this forty-something Russian conductor before, in New York, where he led a stirring performance of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony, so I already knew he was something special. But it was his inclusion of Christian Tetzlaff on the opening program of his first RSB season that truly won me over. The combination, I figured, couldn’t be anything less than exciting.
“Exciting” seems a bland word for the electrifying sensation that ran through the Berlin Philharmonic Hall on September 17. The crowd—a surprisingly young and enthusiastic group, filling every seat in the house—had assembled to hear an unusual and, as it turned out, brilliantly composed program. It began with a seventeen-minute piece, Dimensions, by a Korean composer, Isang Yun, whose centenary is being celebrated in Berlin this year. The work was sufficiently complicated and intricate to require exceedingly fancy footwork from the orchestra, but they managed both its Asian overtones and its modernist intensities with aplomb. It was immediately followed by Arnold Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto, which—given Tetzlaff’s remarkable performance on the violin—couldn’t help but be the high point of the program. With every sway of his body and shift of his carefully controlled dynamics, the brilliant violinist showed us the rhythmic and musical structure of the work even as he made it seem practically danceable. This was Schoenberg at his thorniest, and yet Tetzlaff (beautifully backed up by Jurowski and his fine musicians) managed to make it seem enveloping and almost welcoming. We were rewarded as well by a lovely Bach solo as Tetzlaff’s generous encore, which closed the first half on a movingly tender note.
There were two more works assigned to the evening’s second half: a ten-minute vocal piece by the Italian Luigi Nono, named after and dedicated to the Czech journalist Julius Fucik, who was arrested, tortured, and killed by the Gestapo in 1943; and then Beethoven’s Fifth, as orchestrated by Mahler. How in the world, we all wondered at the intermission, is Jurowski going to perform the fine old Fifth on this otherwise revolutionary program? What he did was to lead from the final words of Fucik (a spoken rather than sung work, in which the actor playing the tortured, dying Fucik murmured a few elegiac words about the joy he had taken in life, and particularly in a theme by Beethoven) directly into the first notes of the Beethoven symphony, without even a pause for breath. And suddenly we had the connection in front of us: Beethoven as transcendent romantic inspiration for people everywhere, but now infused with the underlying darkness of German twentieth-century history. This was like no other performance of the Fifth I had ever heard—sharp, precise, modulating at times from near-silence to blasting loudness, and with waves of orchestral sound rising and falling in separate segments, so that every instrumental part was somehow distinctly audible. Moreover, each of the symphony’s many repetitions, which can seem tiresome in ordinary hands, now had a different meaning from its predecessors. It was as if Jurowski had puzzled out every measure, figuring out in each case how to make it new while also retaining its sense of being pure Beethoven.
It was with raised hopes, therefore, that I attended the second of Jurowski’s and the RSB’s concerts, a September 20 performance of Mahler’s Second, preceded by another Schoenberg work. Again, the concert exceeded all possible expectations. The Schoenberg—a 1950 piece called Psalm 130—was sung (and spoken, and whispered) a capella, in Hebrew, by the powerful Rundfunk Choir, who stood assembled on the steps behind the silent RSB. Even as the closing words of the psalm were uttered, the musicians took up their instruments, so that Mahler’s first notes (as in the Beethoven) sounded immediately on the heels of the Schoenberg. It was as if the five-minute Jewish psalm—which expresses a cry to God “from the depths”—and the eighty-minute “Resurrection Symphony” had been combined into a single work, opening and closing with the sounds of the human voice.
My problem with Mahler is that he can sound mushy, with indistinct rhythms melding into floating tone-poems of sound, so that I find myself floundering in search of a firm foothold. Jurowski solved all that by making every rhythmic transition, every change of chord, visible in his gestured instructions to the orchestra. Like Tetzlaff, he is essentially a dancer onstage, rendering the music through his own bodily movements, his own graceful hand gestures. This was Mahler clarified, simultaneously made more comprehensible and more stirring. For the first time, I understood why the eternally dramatic and unfailingly rhythmic Shostakovich loved this composer so much.
If Jurowski is a showman, it is in the best sense of the word, for by emphasizing the drama in an orchestral work, he also shows us aspects of the music. So for once, in the Mahler symphony, I was able to hear things that made narrative sense of the whole complicated piece. In particular, the way Jurowski parsed the second movement (as a cheerily Germanic landler, celebrating the joys of everyday life) and the third movement (as a hair-raising dance of death, deploying distinctly klezmerish sounds) opened my ears to how brilliant Mahler’s use of the simple three-beat rhythm could be. When I heard those explicitly Jewish plaints on the clarinet and the violin, I also realized something else: that the whole program had been composed as a kind of counterpoint between German Judaism and German Christianity, celebrating not only the Jewish composer who had lived through the 1933–45 period to compose his valedictory psalm, but also that secular Jew, Mahler, who converted to Catholicism to hold down his nineteenth-century post. And perhaps Jurowski, too—a descendant of Russian-Jewish musicians, raised without religion in the Soviet Union, who has now come to rest in Berlin—was putting something of himself in there, too.