Whenever the Berliner Philharmoniker visits Carnegie Hall there is an extra measure of excitement in the air. Even more so for this concert of the monumental ‘Choral’ Symphony. The house was packed. Throughout, the usual barrage of coughing (especially during flu season) was noticeably absent, probably because the audience was so enraptured.
The Philharmoniker performed up to its reputation. Strings sounded rich and vibrant, playing with virtually perfect precision. The brass played with command, and woodwinds elicited a luminous sheen, individually and as an ensemble, and ardent accentuation reinforced exquisite lyrical phrasing.
Simon Rattle imbued the Ninth with vital energy, his brisk pace in the first two movements creating an impulse that affected the entire performance. In the opening movement, he tended to press ahead in strong passages and then ease up slightly as the dynamic level receded, but such flexibility was not subjected to affectation. Rattle made good use of the BP’s radiant sound and forceful playing, carefully shaping crescendos toward stirring climaxes. Tension was virtually unremitting, yet without being over-pressured. In the Scherzo’s Trio, his hard-driven tempo did ease somewhat, and robust attacks propelled each entrance in canonic passages. The fortissimo section toward the end of the Scherzo (both times) sounded like the onslaught of cavalry charging furiously to meet the enemy.
Pure quietness and exquisite melodic lines graced the opening Adagio section of the slow movement. The contrasting Andante subject had a natural fluidity, embellished by lovely woodwind fioritura. Rattle shaped the music wonderfully, the brass fanfares that are its dramatic highpoint ringing out, and the closing section was imbued with an air of mystery that seemed almost spiritual.
The dissonant outburst that begins the Finale was dynamically moderate for fortissimo. Again Rattle set a lively pace, not lingering over theatrical passages, adding sudden distinctions of loud and soft (fp), and giving inner details greater prominence. Rattle seemed more concerned with pressing forward or shifting into a higher gear than in maintaining structural unity through tempo consistency. Thus, during the approach to the closing section, the speed quickened to a blazing speed that bordered on the frenetic.
One could hardly imagine a more impressive array of vocal forces, the impressive solo singers primarily from the opera world who could be heard with no difficulty from behind the orchestra. Of the quartet Dimitry Ivashchenko was assertive and formidable in “O Freude, nicht diese Töne!” and Christian Elsner gave a heroic reading of “Froh, froh, wie seine Sonnen”. Susanna Phillips, who subbed for the ailing Annette Dasch, sang with strength, tonal transparency and unfailing pitch. Eva Vogel joined with Phillips in a few memorable moments when they were paired against the male soloists in “Freude Tochter aus Elysium”. The sheer size of the Westminster Symphonic Choir (about 250 members) enhanced the vigor of its contribution – add to which extraordinary clarity and superlative enunciation.