Berlin Phil/Rattle – 12 October

Symphony No.88 in G major
Symphony No.5 in C sharp minor

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 12 October, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

This was the second of two concerts marking the first appearance in London of the much-heralded new partnership of Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. Expectations for the success of this combination are running high. The sudden and unexpected resignation of the orchestra’s Intendant, Franz-Xaver Ohnesorg, just a couple of days earlier, seemed not to have dampened spirits.

The Haydn – a favourite with one of Rattle’s predecessors, Wilhelm Furtwängler – was full of bucolic high spirits. Phrases at the start were elegant and neatly turned, whilst the ’Allegro’ had a sense of joyous momentum with accents and phrasing scrupulously observed. Perhaps there was a trace of pedantry in Rattle’s handling of the many details of scoring, but the orchestra was infine fettle and responded enthusiastically. The slow movement’s lines for oboe and solo cello were immaculate and expressive, and the trumpets blazed magnificently at their first entrance (Haydn cunningly holds them back until this point). However, Iexperienced a lack of repose. Everything seemed a bit fidgety, as if details were being drawn attention to. The ’Minuet’ was strong and appropriately dance-like, with a real sense of Austrian ’schwung’. The ’Trio’, with its peculiarly placed accents, can be played more slyly than it was on this occasion. The ’Finale’ was more ’Presto’ than ’Allegro con spirito’, and there could have been greater dynamic contrasts, which change with remarkable swiftness. If one was looking for profundity of expression, then one would have been disappointed. What we heard was one of the world’s top orchestras revelling in its collective virtuosity and enjoying the challenges its conductor was posing.

I have not read the review – posted on this site – of Rattle’s CD of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, which was made during a run of performances in Berlin last month. I did though catch the BBC-TV broadcast. I was disappointed – a reading in fits and starts, which prevented the musical argument being developed cogently. In stark contrast, then, to the trenchant and powerful interpretation given by Boulez and LSO (9 October) that I reviewed.

Rattle’s view had not changed in the month or so since the broadcast performance. There were moments when one felt that Mahler had written a ’concerto for orchestra’ rather than a tautly wrought symphonic work. The opening funeral march was heavy enough, though without the dark, brooding quality that Boulez and the LSO brought. Brass interventions were powerful, albeit with a touch of coarseness. The string playing was most affecting. Expressive sighs and more passionate outbursts alike were utterly convincing. In the tempestuous second movement, Rattle certainly whipped up a storm, and the players responded with bite and fire, but it was again rather difficult to discern the direction in which the music was actually heading. It was a series of ’moments’ – potent though they were – rather than coherent musical paragraphs. After a terrific climax, the closing pages were suitably eerie and unsettling.

For the third movement, Rattle decided to have the Principal horn-player at the front of the orchestra. This decision is apparently based on an instruction to the conductor Mengelberg, but seems an odd and unnecessary. The horn predominated in a way that felt uncomfortable – brilliantly though the part was played. This movement was propelled along quite convulsively, with driving rhythms and clattering percussion contributing to an almost frenzied effect which was exhilarating in its own terms.

The ’Adagietto’ follows, which should be an oasis of calm in the midst of the surrounding volatility, was rather fast and loud. Here, a gentler, more relaxed approach would have paid dividends. The high spirits of the ’Finale’ were once again an opportunity for orchestral display and played with a passion and commitment that is almost frightening in its intensity, something Rattle has described: “There is a commitment that burns so bright when they play that you worry about putting your hand too close to the flame”.

Well, Rattle has plunged himself into the fire and the Berlin Philharmonic is clearly committed to its new Artistic Director. Let us hope, given all the expectations and hype, that the partnership does not disappoint.

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