Piano Quartet No.1 in G minor, Op.25
Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68
Reviewed by: Andrew Farach-Colton
Reviewed: 11 November, 2009
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
Yet there were splendid moments, too. Rattle’s exaggeratedly slow tempo for the central animato section of the slow movement gave it a soaring Wagnerian grandeur (of course, Schoenberg’s glittering orchestration contributed significantly to this impression). And in the fiery, gypsy-style finale, Rattle inspired stunningly brilliant virtuoso playing from the Berliners. It was exciting, to be sure, though rather lacking in playfulness and a sense of spontaneity, and that would have made this performance even more thrilling.
Rattle’s approach with Brahms’s First Symphony was not much different, but the effect was far more problematic. Nearly every phrase was played legato, and staccato markings were interpreted as tenuto, which rendered even the most jagged of phrases shapelessly smooth. As in the Piano Quartet, the orchestra played with an overwhelming and admittedly glorious lushness. Yet here it felt as if the players were focusing on quality of sound to the utter neglect of rhythmic energy and articulation. This was particularly damaging in the first movement, in which bite and grit are essential.
In the slow movement, Rattle fussed so much over details (dynamic markings, textural changes, balance) that the long line was completely lost. The intermezzo-like third movement flowed prettily but was under-characterized, offering little sense of bucolic respite. (Why, for instance, hide those delicious ornamental arpeggios in the clarinet behind the strings?)The finale started with a strong sense of dramatic purpose, and when that marvelous phrase in the horn emerged, it was as if from a primeval mist (shades of Wagner, again). But the main body of the movement failed to make good on the promise, progressing in a warm wash of legato. There was no sense of struggle, surprise, or revelation – which is, ultimately, what a great performance of this symphony needs to impart. And, frankly, it’s what one expects when the Berlin Philharmonic brings Brahms to Carnegie Hall.