Berlin Phil/Rattle – 11 October

Schoenberg (arr. composer)
String Quartet No.2 in F sharp minor
Symphony No.9 in D minor

Dawn Upshaw (soprano)

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 11 October, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Expectations were inevitably running high for Sir Simon Rattle’s UK debut as Principal Conductor and Artistic Director of the Berlin Philharmonic, allowing London audiences to judge the extent to which Rattle has already influenced the aesthetic and playing style of this European musical institution.

Certainly the detailed, pliable string tone evident in Schoenberg’s string orchestra arrangement of his Second String Quartet was worlds away from the rich textures increasingly favoured by Karajan, while the lightness and astringency cultivated by Abbado will no doubt continue. Rattle has been reviving this neglected arrangement since his guest-conducting days in Los Angeles, and took every opportunity to open out the expressivity of what can easily seem overtly claustrophobic in its quartet original.

If the emotion of the opening ’Moderato’ was a shade over-wrought, and the quixotic ’Scherzo’ a little strait-laced, the vocal movements which follow were powerfully sustained. Litanei’s paean of desperation was delivered by Dawn Upshaw with palpable intensity, and if she seemed marginally less certain how to project the transcendence of Entrückung, Rattle’s shaping of its tonal trajectory from atonality to an almost Medieval harmonic resolution made a duly cathartic impact.

During his tenure with the CBSO, Rattle conducted efficient if hardly inspired readings of Bruckner’s Fourth, Seventh and Ninth Symphonies. Whether down to experience, or working with an orchestra steeped in the Bruckner tradition, his approach to the Ninth is now altogether more imposing. With violins divided left and right, violas and cellos in between, and basses across the rear, the sound had considerable depth; while Rattle’s differentiation of timbre between horns and Wagner tubas paid dividends in the ’Adagio’ with which the work ends.

That ’final’ movement was the highlight of the performance. Long-breathed and with requisite gravitas, yet never lachrymose – with dynamic contours pointedly but not artificially drawn. Earlier, Rattle’s tendency to rush the first movement’s crescendo sequences had tended to undermine continuity. Without a consistent sense of pulse, the formal process can easily unravel, and the music’s apparent structural longeurs become real. Even so, the second theme was heartfelt in its phrasing, with the climactic implosion of the development and implacability of the coda registering with that cumulative intensity unique to Bruckner. Rattle currently inflects the ’Scherzo’ with more Mahlerian irony than it can take, while a degree more ruthlessness in those viscous downbeats would not go amiss.

Despite the reservations, Rattle now has the measure of Bruckner’s music to an extent shared by few British conductors (Barbirolli and Colin Davis obvious exceptions). Implicit trust is the surest way to mastery, and working with the Berlin Philharmonic will provide an unrivalled opportunity to further develop an authentic Bruckner idiom.

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