Singing bowls, also called handpans, are extremely likeable instruments. Whoever hears them, they almost immediately rapture them from the present, they ensure deep relaxation and that waiting is hardly perceived as such. In this respect, it was a good choice to engage the Austrian Manu Delago as the opening act in the Waldbühne, who has toured with Björk several times before and immediately agrees that this will be a rather elegiac evening.
Then the strings from the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin (RSB) with conductor Bjarni Fríman Bjarnason appear – and finally Björk herself, without a bang, without a bang, simply walking down the ramp, a being like not from this planet.
Tens of thousands cheer with relief: they have waited a long time for this moment. The “Björk Orchestral Tour” was postponed twice because of Corona. Björk wouldn’t be Björk if she let a pandemic get her down – the genre-breaking artist, who stands for so much more than “just” singing, is hardened by almost three decades in the limelight, she self-confidently and programmatically called her debut album from 1993 “Debut”.
The last one, “Utopia”, was released five years ago, so every appearance is all the more welcome. The Icelander was last in Berlin in 2015, in the Spandau Citadel. Unlike the lavish “Cornucopia” tour of 2019 (which was based on “Utopia”), these first post-pandemic concerts are visually stripped down, almost a bit humble, with no fat lighting effects, no props. It’s about the basics: voice, lyrics, composition.
Björk sings 15 songs that evening, beginning with “Stonemilker” (2015) very calmly and calmly. If you didn’t know, you would hardly listen to this music, that a disastrous separation is creatively processed here, as in all titles of the “Vulnicura” album, which was very present that evening.
Artist/director Matthew Barney’s: “What is it that I have/That makes me feel your pain/Like milking a stone”. Emotionally, she gets completely naked, which, as always, stands in striking contrast to the opulent costume, which always seems to tell a whole story of its own with Björk.
From afar, this clothing composition has something wild, like a Nordic fur throw, but if you take a closer look, it looks more like a Japanese kimono, lavishly decorated and yet with a certain lightness. In addition, a silver hat and a mask that gives her something feline.
It is entirely logical that Björk performs with a large symphony orchestra, since strings have always played a major role in their dazzling musical cosmos. But now the arrangements give the songs something extra soft, rounded, lushly flourishing, softening the hard and painful corners the lyrics talk about.
Sometimes the singer steps back completely, allowing the tutti or solos to flourish. Björk is working with the RSB for the first time, the coordination with the young compatriot Bjarnason on the podium, who studied in Berlin at the Hanns Eisler Academy of Music, works audibly well. RSB chief conductor Vladimir Jurowski was originally supposed to be here, but this plan was lost at some point in the two years of the pandemic.
Certainly not lost, not even at the age of 56, is Björk’s unique, still juvenile-sounding voice, which has the mythological depth of sirens, is often sung as if in a trance and, over time, has at most gained pithyness.
With this soprano she now interprets “Aurora” or “Come to Me”, “Hunter”, “Quicksand” or “I’ve seen it all” from the “Dancer in the Dark” soundtrack accompanied by plucked basses and cellos.
Scenes from an artist’s life: The relationship with director Lars von Trier was also known to be difficult and is said to have been characterized by exploitation. Björk repeatedly explores herself in her work, including with the fictional character “Isobel” in the early song of the same name from 1995. It begins like a fairy tale, the lyrics come from the Icelandic poet Sjón: “In a heart full of dust /lives a creature called lust/it surprises and scares/like me”.
All in all, the Waldbühne does not sound overwhelming, but an intimate, more in minor, thoughtful concert, which, and that’s a pity, lacks at least one big hit: “Venus as a boy”. As an encore, the RSB plays the “Ouverture” from the “Dancer in the Dark” soundtrack, then Björk gives a brief speech, referring to the pandemic and the fact that concert dates have been constantly postponed as a result. And raises the verbal fist in the air: “But we did not give up!”
Everything changes again for the very last number: the RSB strings can show that they can also handle hard, dramatic techno beats. For “Pluto” from the album “Homogenic”, Björk was inspired by the ninth planet, also called “the great innovator”, although it has since lost its planetary status.
Icelandic mythology also plays a role, the Ragnarök, a monumental narrative cycle full of natural catastrophes and falling gods, comparable in dimensions to the Nibelungenlied. “Pluto” is so completely different from the previous, somewhat melancholic framework of the concert that it seems like an announcement: next time we’ll rock again.