Berliner Philharmoniker/Rattle at Carnegie Hall – 1: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, The Golden Spinning Wheel, Verklärte Nacht, Enigma Variations

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
The Golden Spinning Wheel, Op.109
Verklärte Nacht, Op.4 [1943 Version]
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op.36

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 23 February, 2012
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Sir Simon Rattle. Photograph: Mat Hennek EMICarnegie Hall is celebrating its 120th-anniversary with a season featuring works from the “Golden Age of Music” into which it was born. In keeping with that theme, Sir Simon Rattle programmed for this first of three New York concerts by Berliner Philharmoniker four works composed in the last decade of the nineteenth-century by composers of four different nationalities.

Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, a landmark in the transformation from Romanticism to Impressionism, is a free-form illustration of Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem rather than a setting of its text. The music’s captivating patterns and sometimes strange harmonies suggest the languorous atmosphere in which the weary faun falls into a blissful sleep. Emmanuel Pahud’s sensuous flute solo introduced a rapturous performance.

In contrast, Dvořák’s symphonic poem, The Golden Spinning Wheel, rather literally follows the text by his compatriot Karel Erben of a gruesome folktale. A king, weary from the hunt, falls in love with Domicka, a maiden who offers him a drink, but her wicked stepmother and stepsister slay Domicka, cutting off her hands and feet and gouging out her eyes, and then substitute the sister for the king to marry. A sage persuades the evildoers to exchange the mutilated body parts for a golden spinning wheel, spindle and distaff, and he brings the slain girl back to life with magical waters. The spinning wheel reveals the crime to the king, who finds and weds the revived Domicka. Dvořák’s music is rife with Bohemian colorations, with the king’s hunting party represented by horns and trumpet fanfares, his dialogues with Domicka by duets of English horn and solo violin, the dark deeds by low strings, timpani and brass, and the spinning wheel by the flute. (Dvořák ends on a happy note, omitting the murderers’ deadly punishment.) Notwithstanding the orchestra’s precise and vivid playing, because the piece’s narrative nature deprives it of any satisfying musical structure, Rattle failed to convince that it merits more than the relatively meager attention it usually receives.

After intermission, Rattle led Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, which represents the culmination of Schoenberg’s tonal, romantic style. Composed in 1899 for string sextet, it was expanded for string orchestra in 1917 and succeeds both in abstract musical terms and in narrating Richard Dehmel’s poem. As throughout the evening, the string-players threw themselves into the music physically, their swaying in unison bringing vitality and intensity to the performance. The resulting sound was sumptuous, ranging from barely audible at the start to powerful waves of sound in climactic passages.

Rattle capped off the program with Elgar’s Enigma Variations, also dating from 1899. His affinity and deep affection for the work were well communicated to the orchestra, from which he drew spectacular playing. There was ample opportunity for virtually every member of the orchestra to impress, with Pahud’s flute and Andreas Ottensamer’s clarinet solos being particularly noteworthy. Rattle took ‘Nimrod’ at a deliberate pace, beginning softly and building to a moving climax before gently fading away. He imbued the finale with great excitement and a brilliant culmination.

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