The Philharmonia has links with the music of the Weimar Republic. Otto Klemperer, one of the Orchestra’s first conductors, commissioned Kurt Weill to create a Suite from The Threepenny Opera, Kleine Dreigroschenmusik, and conducted it in 1929; his 1962 Philharmonia recording is hard to beat with its mordant wit, and Paul Hindemith recorded with the Philharmonia during the 1950s and conducted Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony in the Festival Hall, which older concertgoers recall fondly.
The Threepenny Suite sounded impossibly lush after hearing the astringency of the seven-piece Lewis Ruth Band on the soundtrack of G. W. Pabst’s 1931 film at the BFI three hours earlier. Interestingly, the Philharmonia used the 1956 version by Max Schönherr, music director of the Vienna Radio Orchestra after the Second World War, rather than Weill’s version premiered by Klemperer and which drops three items. Esa-Pekka Salonen was brisk and smart in the ‘Overture’ but ‘Mack the Knife’ sounded more of a lounge-lizard crooner rather than genuinely dangerous. The setting of ‘Polly’s Song’ is well-crafted with wistful woodwinds and exquisite solos for flute and violin. Salonen was in best 1920s’ band-leader mode and the players obviously enjoyed themselves but it was debatable whether they penetrated the sleazy soundworld.
The two contrasting wings of Weimar music – Expressionism and Neue Schlichkeit (new objectivity) – were evident in the first half. Alban Berg’s Three Pieces from Wozzeck (a calling-card for the opera) were thorny and anguished. Angela Denoke brought great sincerity to Marie’s lullaby to her child and was affecting where she reads from the Bible of Jesus’s meeting with the adulterous wife. The swirling strings and threatening brass in the final interlude were searing in their intensity and Salonen graded climaxes expertly in a finely-shaped performance.
By way of contrast, Paul Hindemith’s rarely heard Concerto for Orchestra is detached, clear, and democratic. In four movements Hindemith consistently juxtaposes groups of soloists against the orchestral backdrop. Salonen emphasised Hindemith’s backward glance to the Baroque with the trilling polyphony of oboe, bassoon and violin in the first movement. The second had sarcastic brass and pummelling percussion whilst the Philharmonia’s bubbling woodwinds excelled in the third. It all came together in a Finale of fizzing solos and fearsome power with everyone contributing to the greater good. It’s a dapper, slightly dry but inventive piece which never outstays its welcome. The Philharmonia’s committed advocacy made a strong case for Hindemith as arguably the most underrated composer of the twentieth-century.
Shostakovich visited Berlin from the Soviet Union in 1927 and set his football-inspired ballet The Age of Gold in the Weimar Republic. It premiered at the Kirov Theatre in 1930. A Soviet football team travels abroad, falls victim to match-fixing and police harassment and is imprisoned. The team is freed from jail when the local workers overthrow their capitalist employers and the ballet ends with a dance of solidarity between the workers and the football players. Salonen and the Philharmonia paraded the ‘Revolutionary Finale’ for all that it was worth, its vigour and occasionally threatening tone as well as its symphonic continuity, with incisive playing from acerbic strings, piercing woodwinds and blazing brass (with an extra helping of instruments located in the choir). It encapsulated the contrasting intensity and silliness, brutality and charm, of the Weimar period perfectly.