Chicago, 1921. Sergei Prokofiev premiered an opera about melancholy and mirth. A prince who is unable to laugh finds three oranges, each one containing a princess, and after various phantasmagorical exploits he marries princess number three. Outmoded characters representing tragedy, comedy, lyric drama and farce bicker at the sidelines with a bunch of “ridicules”. Reviewers of The Love for Three Oranges wanted to know who Prokofiev was poking fun at: them? The audience? Art itself? “All I was trying to do,” the composer later shrugged, “is write an amusing opera.”
Two years later, Jean Sibelius in Finland confused everyone with his Sixth Symphony. Gone are the great soaring swans of his Fifth Symphony. This is music that dodges pretty pictures. Sibelius reached sideways for the ancient modes of folk music and set them with introverted, evasive, disquieting plainness. Benjamin Britten said he must have been drunk when he wrote it. Maybe he was – he had abandoned seven years of abstinence – but Sibelius himself had a more interesting explanation. “Whereas most other modern composers are engaged in manufacturing cocktails of every hue and description, I offer the public pure cold water.”
What can we glean from postwar music made a century ago? What’s in store when we finally emerge from the pandemic, flapper-like with elan (presumably), ready for our own promised “roaring Twenties”? The Berlin Philharmonic’s current online festival, conjuring the Berlin of that decade, could have easily gone for a simplified narrative of Weimar-age high life – but wisely doesn’t. One concert conducted by Thomas Søndergård spanned the decade, from Prokofiev’s arch irony to Sibelius’s cold water to Kurt Weill grinning on the next cliff-edge. None of it felt the least bit simple.
Weill is the thread of the Berlin Philharmonic series. More than anyone, he and Bertolt Brecht (with significant help from the women around them) coined the sound of Weimar, soundtracking pleasure on the brink of collapse. The Mahagonny-Songspiel was first staged in a boxing ring in Baden-Baden in 1927. A full opera came three years later, and Brecht insisted on making the work explicitly political even if it meant the audience hated it. The city of Mahagonny is swollen on debauchery. Nobody really cares about anyone else. Jimmy the lumberjack is sentenced to death for the crime of being poor and Jenny the prostitute turns her back on him. There was a riot at the premiere, Weill and Brecht never worked together again, and Germany went the way it did.
[See also: How Chick Corea shaped a jazz generation]
I wonder what Weill would have thought hearing his sharp-penned, woozy Mahagonny music (in the orchestral suite by Wilhelm Brückner-Rüggeberg) from the Berlin Philharmonic’s plush “Digital Concert Hall”. This is the finest online orchestral set-up in the world; it goes without saying the sound of the concert was magnificent. The burnish of the strings, the honeyed saxophone solos – Weill’s cabaret tunes sounded unfalteringly expensive, which in one sense fits an opera set in a city obsessed with money. The lack of underbelly made this Mahagonny less lovable than some but a deeper sort of dangerous.
Søndergård is a superb musician. He puts the strengths of whichever orchestra he’s conducting at the heart of his interpretations (I have watched this in action during his years as music director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, whose playing he has transformed). With the Berlin Philharmonic he is spoiled for choice, but their polished edges can also get in the way. These players don’t do trivial, gauche or grotty. I found myself scanning the camera shots for chinks in the armour: the clarinettist counting time on his fingers; the bubble wrap around the trumpet mute; the price sticker left on a wood block (79 euros, I think).
But Søndergård used the implacable brilliance of the machine to stage a thrilling pivot between steel and heart. Forget sarcasm; his reading of the Prokofiev was white-hot, exacting, unflinchingly sincere. At the start of the Sibelius, he made his hands into a cup shape as though cradling the first hovering notes before they sounded. The symphony proceeded with a rare beauty and affection, the strange overlapping scales passed between sections of the orchestra like something utterly precious.
[See also: Slowthai’s TYRON is not quite an apology record]
What this concert told us about music made a century ago was that the roaring Twenties probably won’t roar. Artists might evade, trivialise or probe around the edges of pain like tonguing a sore tooth. Healing will come in fits and spurts. Prokofiev was already constructing his barrier of detachment at the beginning of the decade. Sibelius gave us a glimpse of the abyss at the end of his symphony but he did not plummet. What saved him was not grandiose heroism but coolness and clarity. I suspect it was the consolation of setting one note after another. Music does not have to be exuberant in order to console. Sometimes it is enough just to be.
The Berlin Philharmonic’s online festival “The Golden Twenties” is available to view in the archive of its digital concert hall: digitalconcerthall.com
The Golden Twenties
Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall
This article appears in the 03 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Humanity vs the virus