Chamber Music In Baden-Baden

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May 062013

I was standing in the snow and wind on top of the local high point, the Merkur (2192 ft.), looking down on the resort town of Baden-Baden, listening while a hiker from the area gave me a geography lesson about the various rock formations and the geothermal activity that keeps the town clear even when the mountain and the surrounding area are covered in snow.

The attraction of Baden-Baden during the week before Easter 2013 was certainly not the weather – the fact that the town was clear of snow didn’t help with the air temperature, the wind, or the unchanging cloud cover – nor was it any of the other reasons the town appeals to tourists: the hot-spring spas, the casino, the picturesque setting in the Black Forest, the history of the town as a resort for the Russian aristocracy, the haunts of Dostoevsky and Turgenev. It was instead the first appearance of the Berlin Philharmonic as the resident orchestra for the Easter Festival.

The premier events in the evenings were gala affairs marked by media presence, luxury busses from 5-star resorts, and flamboyant displays of PETA-defiant fur coats. The brochure included its share of hyperbolic copy – one concert was billed as “Two Titans”, the pianist Krystian Zimerman and the conductor Simon Rattle presumably battling it out over the Brahms First Piano Concerto.

Musically of equal interest to the monumental offerings in the Festspielhaus – the Mahler Second Symphony, the Bruckner Ninth, the Magic Flute – was the Chamber Music Series. Members of the Berlin Philharmonic gave 14 concerts in all, for the most part two concerts each day, each lasting approximately an hour. The concerts took place in various small venues about town: the Stiftskirche, the “Florentine Hall” in the casino, the Frieder Burda Art Museum designed by Richard Meier, the 19th century theater for which Berlioz wrote his opera “Béatrice et Bénédict”, the “Orangerie” of one of the big resort hotels. For the audience these concerts were a chance to hear first-rate instrumentalists up close, for the members of the Philharmonic, different for each concert, they were a chance to put musicality and individuality on display. The musicians were uniformly at ease: from the delight of the violist Máté Szűcs, who smiled throughout his entire performance, to the charm of the violinist Alessandro Capone, who directed the “Melodie” of Tchaikovsky to two sisters, 6 and 8, sitting in the first row in their Easter ribbons.

Even though the level of musicianship was very high throughout – I heard all of the chamber music concerts in what amounted to a festival within a festival – some players especially were in their element in chamber music. Their freedom in a more intimate setting was striking in its contrast to the uniformity called for by their roles in the orchestra, brilliant as it is under Simon Rattle. Particularly noteworthy were:

The lyricism of the cellist Christoph Igelbrink in the Larghetto of Dvorak’s “American” Quartet in F-major, Op.96.

The flexibility of cellist David Riniker in the Mozart Divertimento in E-flat, K563, particularly in the Adagio, one of  Mozart’s most profound and forward-looking slow movements.

The virtuousity of bassist Edicson Ruiz, a young man from Venezuela who is a product of El Sistema. He played a knotty and brilliant contemporary solo piece written for him by Heinz Holliger.

The purity of tone and perfect blending of four trombones in the Dowland “Book of Songs”, which Christhard Gössling, Olaf Ott, Thomas Leyendecker, and Jesper Busk Sorensen played in the historic Stiftskirche.

The otherworldliness of the duet between the first violin, Daishin Kashimoto, and the clarinet, Wenzel Fuchs, in the Adagio of the Schubert Octet.

The expressiveness of the clarinetist Andreas Ottensamer in the Brahms clarinet quintet in b-minor Op. 115.

As a bonus to those of us who are annoyed by the various and numerous disruptions in the concert hall, in these chamber music concerts, which were attended by an international audience, no one came in late, there was no clapping between movements, no talking in the audience, and only one cell phone incident in the entire week – even without any of the customary hectoring reminders.