Weimar Berlin – Bittersweet Metropolis: Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra

The Weimar Berlin: Bittersweet Metropolis programme notes gives us
a wider timeline – beginning with the Wilhelmshaven sailor’s mutiny (which
was to pre-empt the 1918-1919 German Revolution) and ends with the German
invasion of Poland on 1st September 1939. These broader dates
certainly sit more easily with some of the works included in future
concerts in this series such as excerpts from Busoni’s Doktor Faust (at the very earliest end), presumably some cabaret
songs, but most notably Alban Berg’s 1935 Violin Concerto.

What is unquestionably the case is that the thirteen years up to the
Enabling Act embrace one of the most radical, creative and influential
periods of art, philosophy and science in European culture; likewise, the
almost equal number of years which followed it, is a period of one of the
most savage attempts to unwind, repress or eradicate it entirely – not just
from a single country, but from much of a continent, whilst also
eliminating a whole race who had contributed so much to it during the
Weimar years.

It is perhaps German Expressionism which most epitomises the Weimar
Republic, even though some artists and musicians would later oppose its
influences. Robert Wiene, F.W.Murnau and Fritz Lang would in cinema explore
the disintegration, warped destruction, social fragmentation and chaos of a
Berlin in flux – though a decade later Joseph von Sternberg would repudiate
this vision in films like The Blue Angel which came as close as
any to visualising its decadence through the world of cabaret. Georg
Wilhelm Pabst and William Dieterle did as much as any to make films about
the prostitution and homosexuality which were openly part of late 1920s
German society. If after 1933 Hitler would come to describe these kinds of
art as degenerate it was because they often stood for forms of propaganda –
and inherently Marxist ones as well.

That the music which Esa-Pekka Salonen has chosen for this series –
especially in his first concert – should mirror a wider cultural
exploration of Berlin during this period is no surprise, and nor is it one
that it should be taken from cities like Vienna (the birthplace of Alban
Berg). Beginning with Three Pieces (or, Fragments) from Wozzeck,
we’re already tracing the influences of early German cinema with its
brutalist, uncompromising sadism – though what film could convey in oblique
lines and disorienting angles against menacing shadows, Berg can do with
music that amplifies itself through atonalism, varying pitches and drama of
searing intensity.

Certainly not the easiest music with which to open a concert – you’d rather
expect an orchestra to build up to the kind of impact Berg demands – the
performance was extremely compelling. In one sense, Wozzeck is an
opera which looks forward, with some prescience, to the horrors of the
Third Reich rather than to those of the Weimar Republic – though Berg was
using a libretto based on the reactionary horrors from a century before.
Its themes of militarism, characters who becomes victims of a society they
neither understand nor can escape, sadistic brutality and violence against
each other and medical experimentation are indictments of social injustice
and, as it happens, rather more relevant than to any single time in

The Three Fragments compress much into twenty minutes of music, though it
requires a soprano with a gift for narrative and the ability to immerse
herself very quickly into the character of Marie to bring it off. Angela
Denoke was largely a superb advocate for these pieces, even down to her
impressive stage presence which was racked with intensity: the quivering
body, the deeply reflective eyes, the moulded hand gestures. Her ability to
bring sectional contrast to the first fragment was exceptionally
convincing. Denoke could be searing in her lamentation of infatuation for
her Drum Major and the guilt of the child born out of wedlock; but in
singing a lullaby to the child she became unbearably touching. She was
equally telling in the second fragment. Reading from the Bible of Jesus’s
meeting with an adulterous woman, Denoke became not just aware of the
uncertainty of her own future but of the eventual downfall she was to meet.
The violent outburst of ‘Herr Gott! Sieh’ mich nicht an!’ was crushing and
seemed to come from nowhere – a searing reminder of the music that
dominates the final fragment. But this second piece is entirely written to
shore up the contradictions between hope and despair and Denoke was more
than equal to doing this.

The final fragment is Berg at his most Mahlerian, though perhaps the climax
of this music owes as much to Wagner as it does to Mahler. Perhaps divided
violins might have helped a touch here (something Salonen has never much
been in favour of) but no matter – the playing of the Philharmonia was
scorching, especially in the shattering climax of the lament.

Hindemith’s Concerto for Orchestra, which followed the Berg, felt
distinctly anachronistic beside the Wozzeck fragments. More than
some of the composers included in this series, Hindemith is a composer who
embraced expressionism and then later turned against it – something which
was to cause him to have a complex relationship with the Third Reich during
the 1930s (though he emigrated before the outbreak of war). This 1925 work
looks as far back as the Baroque for its inspiration. The Concerto
clearly treats particular sets of instruments in the orchestra as separate
voices – in the first movement this is a solo bassoon, oboe and violin; in
the second brass and percussion; in the fourth it’s given over to basses.
The performance was dazzling.

As compelling as the Berg had been in the first half of the concert, it was
Kurt Weill’s Suite from The Threepenny Opera which left a simply
unforgettable impression. I suppose one might have regretted the lack of
any vocal music here, but Max Schˆnherr’s 1956 Suite (which drops three
items from the original arrangement but adds an additional one) was Weimar
from beginning to end. It’s been said of this work that it is “the
weightiest lowbrow opera for highbrows and the most full-blooded highbrow
musical for lowbrows” (Hans Keller) and Salonen and the Philharmonia
Orchestra rather took this to heart. Big band jazz, played by great
orchestras, can sometimes be a fascinating experience (even experiment) but
the sheer opulence and ravishing sound we got here was breath-taking. The
idea that any of this music, that its Hogarthian depiction of a city,
should sound quite this lush is probably slightly repellent but despite the
rich strings it felt slightly neutered by Salonen’s nod to Weill’s original
orchestration. There was no denying the superb playing on muted brass, the
jazzy clarinets and piercing flutes. ‘Mack the Knife’ crooned wonderfully
(if over-emphatically); it all felt very stylish, if hardly particularly

The final work, Shostakovich’s Revolutionary finale from The Golden Age presented a slightly darker side of Weimar Germany.
It captures the composer’s fascination with football on the one hand, but
scores political goals through its narrative of match rigging, police
harassment, imprisonment and the Marxist class struggle. The scoring for
this work is like a ballet for soccer players: raucous percussion, blazing
brass, strings battling through this maelstrom of sound. Salonen and the
Philharmonia whipped up a frenzy of playing which was barely unrestrained
in its riotous violence. Shostakovich may well have this ballet end with
the solidarity of workers and his football team overthrowing their
capitalist oppressors, but the irony of the oppression which was soon to
come didn’t quite go unnoticed in this riveting performance.

Weimar Berlin: Bittersweet Metropolis

continues on 23rd September 2019.

Marc Bridle

Berg – Three Pieces from Wozzeck, Hindemith – Concerto for Orchestra, Weill – The Threepenny Opera:
Suite (arr. Schˆnherr), Shostakovich – The Golden Age:
Revolutionary Finale

Angla Denoke (soprano), Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor), Philharmonia

Royal Festival Hall, London; Sunday 9th June 2019.

product_title=Weimar Berlin – Bittersweet Metropolis: Philharmonia Ochestra
product_by=A review by Marc Bridle
product_id=Above: Esa Pekka Salonen

Photo credit: Minna Hatinen