Two Concert Houses, Two Divas

May 18, 2011

Berlin's concert halls, the Philharmonie and the Konzerthaus, share little common ground.

The Philharmonie is a modernist building designed by Hans Scharoun on Potsdamer Platz in the west.

The Konzerthaus is a neo-classical building by Karl Friedrich Schikel on the Gendarmenmarkt is in east.

The Berlin Philharmonic is considered one of the best orchestras in the world, while the Konzerthausorchester maintains a more local profile.

This past weekend, both houses presented exciting programs with vocalists who count among Europe's most cherished and symphonies in honor of Gustav Mahler's centennial.

At the Philharmonie, one time Music Director Claudio Abbado led a concert featuring the young diva Anna Prohaska, who at only 26 has appeared at prestigious festivals such as Salzburg and Luzern, in addition to her activities as an ensemble member of the Staatsoper in Berlin. The evening also featured a veteran star, the pianist Maurizio Pollini.

Prohaska, with a quicksilver young soprano that sits with poise in the upper range, glided gracefully through the opening number, Mozart's exquisite orchestral song Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio KV 418, written in a particularly high tessitura. Although she initially emitted several flat tones, she gained stride in the recapitulation of the opening stanza, adding artful ornamentation.

The soprano's dramatic interpretation bordered on stylistic excess; perhaps less attention to individual gesture and expression would have allowed for more precise intonation and attention to line, yet Prohaska left no doubt that she is great talent with time to grow. Her voice fit the aria "Ach, ich fühls" from Die Zauberflöte, here given as an encore, like a glove.

In Berg's Symphonic Suite from Lulu, whose premiere in Berlin caused a scandal shortly before the composer's death, Prohaska revealed precocious musicianship and a fiery spirit that aptly suited the music. One could even say she was more in her element in Berg's expressionist outbursts that Mozart's sentimental lyricism.

Abbado led the orchestra in darting phrases of consuming obsession. The searing emotional melt-down and caustically anti-conventional material must have indeed enraged the German public seven decades ago.

In contrast with this twentieth-century madness was Mozart's Piano Concerto in G-Major KV 453, a somewhat infrequently played but thoroughly charming work. The opening Allegro movement unfolded with spirited gusto. Concert Master Guy Braunstein led with vigor and beauty of sound, and Emmanuel Pahud and Andreas Ottensamer proved a delightful pair on flute and clarinet.

Pollini's incisive playing brought clean emphasis to the melodies' contours. The pianist may not have the feathery touch elevated by Mozart lovers, but he plumbs the depths of the keys with unquestionable authority.

In the chirping closing movement that evokes the song of a starling, Abbado drew a firey sound from the orchestra, which intrinsically leans more toward a more subdued elegance. The evening closed with a gleaming rendition of the Adagio movement from Mahler's Tenth Symphony, a sublimely tormented work which the composer left unfinished.

Across the city, Michael Gielen led the Konzerthausorchester Berlin in Mahler's First Symphony, which reveals the composer's early probing of the symphonic form. Variations on "Frère Jacques" and Jewish folk melodies emerged playfully from the tapestry in the third movement, with the stormy final movement in which Mahler's erratic, restless spirit lets loose providing a powerful close.

While a few technical imperfections emerged in the violins, the winds and brass sections were consistently on point. To the credit of the strings section, it has retained a thick, at times coarse texture, untainted by a more transparent aesthetic that predominates in orchestras today. Gielen's sense of timing and use of rubato were admirably authentic throughout the symphony.

Opening the concert was the French mezzo-soprano Véronique Gens in Hector Berlioz's song cycle Les nuits d'été. A leading vocalist in baroque repertoire, Gens brought purity of tone and naturally refined musicianship to her interpretations.

The pastoral, sparsely accompanied Villanelle was performed elegantly despite hyperbolic tempo contrasts between verses. It remained a delight to watch Gens enter the tensely Romantic atmosphere. Sur les lagunes evoked the dark atmosphere of Berlioz's operatic style, heightened by the orchestra's raw playing. Gens conveyed a mixture of fright and lust.

The singer brought a vivid sense of longing to L'absence, while the orchestra's phrasing could have been better tapered to match her vocal lines. In the closing L'ile inconnue, Gens revealed a solid middle range, blending convincingly with the orchestra.

The concert's juxtaposition of Berlioz with early Mahler provided new insight into ways in which tonality was being reinvented in the 19th century. Next season, when Ivan Fischer enters as music director, a host of innovative programming awaits audiences at the Konzerthaus. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit