Gustavo Gimeno captivates the Berliner Philharmoniker

Sergei Prokofiev met Nikolai Rimsky-Kórsakov, in 1904, during his entrance exam to the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. She was years old and she attended the exam with all his compositions: four operas, two sonatas, a symphony and a good number of pieces for piano. “Here we have a diligent student!” Observed Rimsky-Kórsakov, who was presiding over the court. Although he was admitted to his orchestration class, he always behaved rebelliously and enjoyed writing provocative instrumentations.

We read these memories in the first chapter of the autobiography that Prokofiev wrote, in 1941, after his return to the Soviet Union, and after almost two decades of international career in Europe and America. That same year, György Ligeti had started his composition studies in his native Transylvania. He continued them in the Hungarian capital in a musical climate marked by Soviet influence and nationalist submission, which required putting folklorism before any hint of innovation. But Ligeti fled Budapest, at the end of 1956, approached the Central European avant-garde and began to weave its characteristic cobwebs micro-polyphonic.

Faithful to his decision to avoid Spanish music in his international presentations, the conductor Gustavo Gimeno (Valencia, 45 years) has combined works by these three composers in his debut with the legendary Berliner Philharmoniker, yesterday Thursday, October 7. “It is a highly thought-out program with works that I have directed to such outstanding groups as the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Cleveland Orchestra,” the Valencian director confessed to EL PAÍS a few hours before taking the podium. An invitation that you did not expect, but that makes you very excited. “Alicia de Larrocha was never invited to play with the Berliner Philharmoniker and that does not detract from her merit as a pianist,” recalled the current head of the Luxembourg Philharmonic, who will debut his new responsibility at the head of the Luxembourg Symphony next month. Toronto This new debut of Gimeno in the Berliner Philharmonic joins, in a decade, those of two other important Spanish batons: Pablo Heras-Casado, in 2011, and Juanjo Mena, in 2016.

The Berlin Philharmonie had the atmosphere of his nights of yore. The capacity is once again complete, although the pandemic requires the use of a mask and certain access protocols, such as the accreditation of the complete vaccination schedule or the presentation of a negative test. The night began with Romanian Concert , by Ligeti. Quite a challenge for the orchestra that had recorded this composition, in 2001 with Jonathan Nott, within The Ligeti Project (Teldec), but had never programmed it in concert. This is Ligeti’s first orchestral work, written in 1951. A stylistic hybrid, reminiscent of both Bartók and Enescu, and which was the result of ethnomusicological research in Bucharest, in which he transcribed several Romanian songs recorded on wax cylinders. A sample of the duality of their cultural roots, both Hungarian and Romanian, which we can see in other well-known later compositions such as the opera The great macabre and his Sonata for viola .

El solista  Augustin Hadelich, durante el concierto.
The soloist Augustin Hadelich, during the concert. Stephan Rabold

Gimeno left convinced of his ability to combine the sonic tradition of the Berlin orchestra with the intricate details of Ligeti’s score. And the solidity that he brought to the entrance of the double basses of the andantino , after the initial exposure of the string, confirmed it. The entire first movement, which is based on a Mioriţa ballad, featured sonic delicacies in the wood, with the flute player Emmanuel Pahud as the most prominent representative. The frenetic allegro vivace , with all its dense imitative warp, worked transparently. Here began the admirable solos of the concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley, another of the stars of the night. The adagio ma non troppo was also ideal, with that pastoral evocation of the Carpathian alforno horn touches, assigned to the three horns of the orchestra, the last one arranged outside scene for the effect gives lontano . But the best came with the final molto vivace , based on a folk dance from the Vâlcea region, and where Gimeno was able to better capture the rustic flavor of those popular bands that collide with with others, until that fermata where the touches of alforno are heard again before the final ax blow. It should be remembered that these collisions and dissonances of this movement bothered the Hungarian authorities so much that the work did not go beyond the first rehearsal. And its absolute premiere had to wait until 1971. It was clear that Ligeti was not going to abide by the new state aesthetic guidelines.

The first part continued with the Second Violin Concerto , by Prokofiev. It is the last composition of the aforementioned international stage of the composer who, according to his autobiography, he composed between Paris, Voronezh and Baku, in 1935, although its premiere was destined for Madrid. The work was commissioned by the French violinist Robert Soetens and was premiered by him as a soloist with the Madrid Symphony under the direction of Enrique Fernández Arbós, who had been concertmaster of the Berliner Philharmoniker in the first years of the ensemble’s life. Prokofiev had met the Spanish director, as well as Federico García Lorca, during his American tour, from 1930, together with his wife, the Madrid singer Lina Codina.

The Italian-German-American violinist Augustin Hadelich (Cecina, 37, who also debuted with the Berlin philharmonics, played with the precise blend of elegance and bravery that the work demands . He did it with his new instrument, the famous Guarneri del Gesù Leduc , which belonged to Henryk Szeryng. Although, at first, that mixture of chamber music and concert music did not work well, the central andante assai was one of the happiest moments of the night. Hadelich fancifully elevated the lyricism of the solo part, which Prokofiev contrasts with mechanical interludes, where the soloist seems to evoke the static flight of a dragonfly over a pond. The work culminates with a danceable allegro ben marcato , with the touch of Spanish flavor of some castanets, which the violinist faced with all intensity and bravery, admirably supported by the orchestra. He culminated his performance with a nod to the country where he resides. And he tipped the cakewalk for solo violin Louisiana Blues Strut , by the African-American composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson.

La Filarmónica de Berlin,  dirigida por Gustavo Gimeno.
The Berlin Philharmonic , directed by Gustavo Gimeno. Stephan Rabold

In the second half, Gimeno faced the best known work of the program: Scheherazade (or Shecherezada), by Rimski-Kórsakov. A symphonic suite of 622 very common in the programs of the Berlin Philharmonic, which was last heard in 2019, under the direction of Zubin Mehta. The composer himself clarified, within Chronicle of my musical life , published posthumously in 1909, the program of the work. He had extracted several disjointed episodes from Arabian Nights for each of the four movements, with the unifying thread of the story of the brutal Sultan Shahriar and his wife, Princess Sheherazade . But the composer appeals to the eminently symphonic character of the work and not only wanted to avoid the programmatic titles that we assign to each movement today, but also denied having used any leitmotiv .

The Valencian conductor fulfilled these intentions and expressed all the beauty and intensity of these staves. Gimeno found, from the beginning, the right balance between his intentions and the ways of the orchestra. And it relied as much on the ensemble’s sound quality, extraordinary at any dynamic level, as on its astonishing flexibility. We hear the Berliner Philharmoniker sound like the creative instrument that Furtwängler forged, with the power of Karajan and the transparency that Abbado, Gimeno’s mentor, instilled in him until his last days.

The beginning of long and masterful sounded forceful, with that heavy and even rocky nuance of the bass string. And, after the first exposure of the famous violin solo associated with Sheherazade, Gimeno promoted an admirable development of the arpeggiated motif with a marine flavor. In the second movement, the wind soloists of the Berlin Philharmonic unleashed a veritable festival in each variation. Starting with the bassoonist Stefan Schweigert, who asserted the indication “capricioso” of the score. Gimeno elegantly flexed each transition of the third movement, although the best came in the final allegro molto , which begins with the cadenza of the violin, once again with the excellent Noah Bendix-Balgley, and he continued with a fiery portrait of the climax of the shipwreck and the storm, which was played slowly but without losing an iota of intensity. Even the final pages of the work, with the last violin solo, which was the most inspired of the night, produced about ten seconds of silence at the end, before unleashing a thunderous applause.

You will be able to check everything that has been said here, tomorrow Saturday, through the Digital Concert Hall. A live broadcast that will include a conversation between the Valencian conductor and the violist of the orchestra Joaquín Riquelme. Although Gimeno’s debut has been a success, let’s not forget that the true confirmation of a conductor at the Berliner Philharmoniker is the invitation to get back on the podium, something that has not happened neither with Heras-Casado nor with Mena.

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