Eötvös, Brahms, Mahler
If the world is going to end in 2016, which at this rate it may do, then a brand-new oratorio by Péter Eötvös, jointly commissioned by the Salzburg Festival (with several other partners), may provide the backdrop. The Vienna Philharmonic gave the premiere of Halleluja – Oratorium Balbulum tonight at the Festival.
This strange melancholic work had a sense of humor. It comprised three characters: a long-winded and easily distracted narrator, a stuttering prophet, and a drunken angel. The composer called it “four fragments” not because it was excerpted from a longer work, but because he – and the librettist Péter Esterhazy, who died earlier this month – took a much bigger concept and then selected four fragments to put to music. The plot, such as it was, centered on September 11th 2001, in which a European government spokesman on a business trip switches off his hotel television because they are showing what he thinks is an American B-movie of a plane flying into the World Trade Center. However, his wife was on the plane, and ordering a tomato juice… but this plot was not really so important other than as a frame. History has come to an end. People are afraid for tomorrow. They have begun to think only for today. There will be no tomorrow. But does a fragment have an end?
The music was eclectic, but demonstrated that original music today can say something new without having to be ugly. The idea was to keep everything disjointed, flowing logically but changing directions, and of course being interrupted by the three main characters. The chorus augmented the scene, providing periodic Hallelujas composed by a range of composers from Monteverdi through Mussorgsky (including singing two simultaneously by Mozart and Bruckner and one “in the style of Bartok” who never wrote one).
Actor Peter Simonischek in the spoken role of Narrator, alto Iris Vermillion as the Angel, and tenor Topi Lehtipuu as the Prophet gave idiomatic readings, milking the humor of the work through the darkness. The Hungarian Radio Chorus mastered the complex and ever-changing choral parts.
On the podium, the young Brit Daniel Harding (who I thought would get the Berlin job, and instead ended up with the awful Orchestra of Paris… what a waste) showed why he is one of the more dynamic comductors of his generation and able to handle a broad repertory.
This oratorio actually was not the end (it was only four fragments!). The concert resumed after the intermission with Brahms and Mahler. Harding allowed the scaled-down chamber orchestra sing for Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn. The original work was a chorale (although it may not have been by Haydn), and Harding made this clear, adding a bit of cheer after the Eötvös oratorio. For Mahler, we reverted to melancholy: the Adagio from his Tenth Symphony. This Adagio was, of course, also a fragment, the only movement of that symphony that Mahler was able to substantially complete before he died. Taken in the context of the Eötvös work, this performance was a revelation. The world ends, but it is only a fragment. The world goes on.