Friday, December 21, 2012

Music by Rudi Stephan Graces the Digital Concert Hall

A well-designed program of classical orchestral music can unfold new pathways. It can create associations among works that one would never imagine by studying them individually. Guest conductor Kirill Petrenko, known in particular for his work with the Komische Oper in Berlin ten years ago, brought an exquisite program to showcase rare colors within the Berliner Philharmoniker in an event transmitted through the Digital Concert Hall.

The concert centered on two works by the German composer Rudi Stephan [1887-1915]. Stephan was killed in action during the first world war at age 28, but had already composed a small collection of works published by Schott. Stephan's work is so rare that it is not even included in the fourth edition of the David Daniels Handbook. I found it rewarding to learn both works; the "Music for Violin and Orchestra," from 1911 that closed the first half of the program, and the "Music for Orchestra" of 1910 that opened the second half.

The event began with the Symphony of Psalms by Stravinsky. The Rundfunkchor Berlin focused on the rich details of vocal balance and articulation in this score. They differentiated accents and sforzandi and were attentive to the endings of pitches and phrases. The work is scored without violins and violas, so the bright winds of the Philharmoniker shone like diamonds.

But the absence of violins in the Stravinsky was also the perfect foil for the Stephan "Music for Violin and Orchestra." Violinist Daniel Stabrawa, a member of the Philharmoniker since 1983, voiced the violin part as a member of the community and engaged his colleagues. The work is cast in unusual colors with extended and recurrent horn solos. Particularly striking in this performance was the moment of frozen, midnight music that happened just after a lengthy developmental passage. The music regrouped during this wonderful passage before entering the march that figures most of the concluding music.

The "Music for Orchestra" was cast as a funeral march interspersed with nightmarish military passages and suddenly lyrical episodes. With the exception of a fugue that never sounded quite integrated into the discourse, this is a work of high quality and memorable personality.

The event closed with "Le Po√®me de l’extase" by Scriabin. Petrenko led a focused pathway through this score of myriad possibilities, conducting without a baton so that he could shape gestures with both hands. The balance between the ecstatic and the formal clarity of parallelisms and motivic development was exciting.

All four works presented fragmented tonal structures that eventually found their way into C major as they closed. The feel of these approaches differed in each case, each was somewhat more celebratory, culminating in the Scriabin. This was an event to which I look forward to returning once it finds its way into the archive of the Digital Concert Hall.

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