Berlin Philharmonic Adès Premiere

Dvořák
Symphony No.7 in D minor, Op.70
Adès
Tevót [UK premiere]
Janáček
Sinfonietta

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 7 March, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

A packed Barbican Hall greeted Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. A partnership ‘made in Heaven’ has come in for a fair degree of across-the-board criticism, but, make no mistake, the orchestra’s ensemble and technical security have scarcely fallen from the level it latterly achieved with Claudio Abbado. It is rather in interpretative rapport that this partnership is still in its formative stages.

Much of the interest centred on the UK premiere of the latest work by Thomas Adès, itself marking the start of “Traced Overhead” – a seven-concert series focused on Adès’s music. Completed last year, Tevót deploys a large orchestra over an eventful 22 minutes. The opening section accrues elements that finally erupt in a series of intricate canonic exchanges, leading to a heterophonic passage both complex and energetic. From here, the music builds a layered intensity motivated by the antagonism between tuned anvils and an oboe-led chorale. Having reached an expressive plateau, the piece recalls its opening in a lengthy descent that gives the initially stratospheric violin writing an increasingly defined harmonic context – before the final chordal sequence attempts a more overt tonal closure.

Resourcefully scored and visceral in impact, Tevót fulfils the implications of its Hebrew title – that of structures that provide security in time or place of flux (thus Noah’s ark or Moses’s reed basket). Just how much substance lies beneath its alluring surface, and to what degree its ingenious take on post-Minimalist facets constitute a broadening and enrichment of Adès’s idiom, needs further hearings to uncover. This account was nothing if not responsive to its many technical challenges, but for all that there was a lingering sense of a piece impressive more for what it implies than for what it is.

The Adès was framed by two Czech masterpieces half-a-century apart. Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony received a performance that promised much but delivered appreciably less. The highlight was a slow movement that, if at times over-wrought, amply conveyed the pathos and anxiety at its heart. Rattle seemed unsure how to articulate the scherzo’s rhythmic profile, with the trio section portentously handled and the coda crassly unsubtle. Both outer movements were marred by a rhythmic heaviness that impeded the necessary momentum: Rattle’s attempts at expressive emphasis rarely convinced, the finale, in particular, proceeding to an apotheosis that had little real inevitability.

After which (or rather the Adès), it was a pleasure to hear a reading of Janáček’s Sinfonietta that found Rattle harnessing the attributes of the Berliners with his instinctive grasp of this composer. True, the dynamic shading of massed brass at the close of the ‘Intrada’ verged on the self-conscious, and the approach to the climax of the second movement lacked unanimity, but the third movement was superbly sustained at a daringly slow tempo (for all that Rattle eschews its wilder impulses as reinstated in the critical edition), while the ensuing scherzo had a Stravinskian clarity and rhythmic verve. The first half of the finale was powerfully propelled so that the return of the fanfares ‘hit the ground running’, with the closing bars implacable in their intensity and carrying an irresistible charge.

It is then one realises what is possible when Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic have the confidence to play to their relative strengths. Whatever else, theirs is still a partnership of great potential.

  • Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 14 March at 7 p.m.
  • Barbican

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