Teodor Currentzis! The man of the moment, the phenomenon – in our little world at least – and classical music’s great hope returns for the second part of his annual visit to the MCO.
It’s not enough to have an opinion on Currentzis; a position of utter conviction has to be taken. The line of believers is long and consists of influential festival directors, record producers and their like – those charged with taking classical music “forward”. Equally vehement are the detractors, although here we find more individual performing musicians among their number, often ones who belong to the more venerable orchestras or ensembles – self-appointed keepers of the sacred flame. Journalists give Thucyididean representations of both camps but are rarely able to resist choosing sides and sniping at each other in print and online. Sometimes this can be fun, but after a while it becomes a little wearisome.
Does any of this really matter? Yes, but only to a certain extent. Much of the controversy is engineered. Stories are breathlessly recounted of studio recordings going through the night (yes, but only because they start in the late evening to reduce outside noise), rehearsals sprawling through the day (perhaps, but more as a result of a cheerfully chaotic – Russian? – attitude towards timekeeping and on balance rarely longer than our normal day of six hours) and ruthless dictatorial tendencies (compared to other baton wielders who preach a credo of liberal humanism to fawning interviewers while practising a much more ruthless modus operandi behind closed doors, hardly comparable).
Happily, when Currentzis comes to the MCO, these tendencies, whether imagined or not, are not really in evidence. We have a lot of difficult repertoire to learn, none of it familiar to the orchestra. Rehearsals for Luciano Berio’s Coro, the centrepiece of our concerts, are intense and productive. Despite the large number of musicians onstage and an unusual set-up, Currentzis speaks quietly and courteously. Logistics are dealt with briskly before diving into the details of interpretation.
It is here that the Currentzis conundrum becomes interesting and watching how Berio’s masterpiece takes shape in the course of four days will, I think, stay in the memory for a long time. First, it becomes clear that Currentzis’ approach rests on unquestioning loyalty. In itself, this characteristic is not rare but the fealty provided by the MusicAeterna Choir is of an unfamiliar intensity, which leaves the members of the orchestra happily but dumbly awestruck. It is difficult to imagine a vocal ensemble that is more willing or more able to follow Berio’s demands to shout like Algerian women before launching themselves into folk song a moment later.
These details sharply define the contours of each of Berio’s 31 movements but it is only once we start to get a feel for the whole landscape, playing longer chunks, that the scope of Coro becomes apparent. For this listener at least, the moment of realisation comes at movement 29 where a solitary baritone emerges from an accompaniment of violas singing in Hebrew from the Song of Songs. What has until now been an earthy tableau of folk song and revolutionary texts rises to a new level of quasi-religious intensity and this episode that appears after almost an hour of music takes on an uncanny similarity to an Agnus Dei. Once we’ve made this connection, Berio leads us on to his Dies Irae, Tuba Mirum (a totentanz between trombone and baritone) and whispered Libera Me of Pablo Neruda’s recurring text. It is as though the performance takes us around the world before sending us into the ether and it is this experience that leaves the audiences in the temples of Hamburg and Saint-Denis rapt and dazed.
What is fascinating is Currentzis’ approach to what a performing musician’s goal should be and how this leads us to this kind of experience. While others are keen to stress faithfulness to the score or to a composer’s conscious intentions (whatever they may be) Currentzis is brazen in his aim to invigorate a work for his own needs, and by extension, the needs of his contemporary audience. Whether that means the goal is to realise, trump or transcend the composer’s wishes is, presumably, a matter of perspective. For the more thoughtful of critics and listeners, it is this aspect of his approach that understandably touches a nerve. There are moments, or rather entire movements, where Berio’s tempi are sacrificed for, say, a feeling of snowballing relentlessness.
In other words, while there is a good reason for this particular sacrifice, where does all this stop? While it would be reckless to ignore this question, it would be even more reckless in my opinion to ignore the transformative effect that we have witnessed in our audiences over the course of these five concerts as a result of some of these sacrifices. Currentzis rips the music off the page, unapologetically presenting it as something purely contemporary, and the effect on the listener is visceral.
In his final speech to an exclusive reception of supporters of the Festival de Saint-Denis, Currentzis states clearly that our performances have succeeded in transcending the more political aims of Berio the composer while at the same time more fully realising his work. He also makes the claim that not one of the performers onstage would now deny that Coro is a masterpiece.
Your tour diarist for one agrees with him on both counts and looks forward, with not a little trepidation, to our next collaboration.
Photos: Festival de Saint-Denis/Ch. Filleule; Geoffroy Schied; Elbphilharmonie Hamburg/Daniel Dittus; Pavel Kurdakov