Berliner Philharmoniker/Rattle at Carnegie Hall – 2

Chamber Symphony No.1, Op.9b [Version for orchestra, arranged by the composer]
Erwartung, Op.17
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.73

Evelyn Herlitzius (soprano)

Berliner Philharmoniker
Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 12 November, 2009
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Sir Simon Rattle. Photograph: Stuart Ramson/APThis was the second of three concerts by Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle, featuring Brahms’s four symphonies and music of Arnold Schoenberg. On this occasion, the two Schoenberg pieces really stole the show, preceding a performance of Brahms’s Second that did not ignite much excitement until it was nearing its conclusion.

Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No.1 (1906) and “Erwartung” (1909) stand as landmarks at either end of a brief period of transition from the composer’s predominantly tonal compositions toward a new style that virtually rejected conventional tonality and soon evolved into serialism – Schoenberg’s twelve-note system. The mixture of elements of tonality and atonality creates a tension that pervades both the abstract Chamber Symphony and the concrete monodrama “Erwartung”.

Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No.1 was originally scored for fifteen instruments, but the composer’s arrangement of the work for full orchestra in 1935 drastically rebalanced the work’s sonorities. It multiplied the original five string instruments into the full string section of a symphony orchestra, whilst merely doubling four of the woodwinds (augmented by a third horn and piccolo) and adding two trumpets and three trombones. One effect of this rebalancing was a shift of emphasis toward the tonal aspects of the work, thereby giving it more of a neo-romantic feeling than the original version, in which the tension between tonal and atonal elements were very much at the heart of the piece’s groundbreaking atmosphere,

In this performance, Rattle added yet another flute, clarinet, oboe and bassoon, which helped to tilt the balance of orchestral timbres back toward the original chamber version and thereby to restore some of its quirky character. The result was a very exciting performance, its single movement traversing a wide range of moods corresponding more or less to the multiple movements of a symphony. The orchestra created a constant stream of marvelous sonorities, with the strings and brass standing out particularly, the many solo passages for the principal string players coming through well, providing flashes of the atmosphere of the original 1906 version. Rattle kept a tight rein on things, conducting the complex score from memory – as he did throughout the concert.

Schoenberg composed “Erwartung” (Expectation) in just seventeen days. Its text was written at the composer’s request by Marie Pappenheim, a medical student who had previously authored a poem entitled “Autopsy Room”, in which she described a corpse in terms that prefigured “Erwartung”. Schoenberg then modified her text, deleting some of the more grisly references.

Evelyn Herlitzius. Photograph: musicaglotz.comGerman soprano Evelyn Herlitzius gave a stunning performance as the nameless Woman protagonist. This was a concert performance, so the libretto’s elaborate stage directions regarding both the settings and the singer’s actions and gestures were not observed. Nevertheless, Herlitzius conveyed, almost by her vocalisation alone, the ever-shifting mental state of a distraught woman who searches for her lover and finds and apostrophises his corpse. Her voice was powerful enough to be heard clearly above Schoenberg’s very large orchestra, not only in shrill expressions of terror, but also in the work’s lyrical passages, in which the beauty of her voice was consistently maintained.

“Erwartung” is, in essence, the middle section of a drama that has been separated from what may have come before and what may follow afterward. The story begins without any real exposition to provide the back-story of a plot, and the music likewise starts as if in the midst of a piece already underway. The ending of the work is just as inconclusive, both dramatically and musically, stopping without warning in the midst of a sentence (“I was seeking…”) and a musical phrase.

At the start, the Woman is discovered at the edge of a forest, frightened by its stillness and darkness and trying to muster up the courage to search for an as-yet unidentified man. More than half of the work, including its dramatic and musical high points, is embodied in its fourth and final scene. After a terrifying passage through the woods, the Woman enters a clearing where she discovers a body, crying out “It is he” when she recognizes her lover. This crucial moment is punctuated by a sudden and dramatic orchestral outburst, and then an equally suddenly plunge into silence, both of which effects were executed most effectively by Rattle and the orchestra. Soon afterward, as the Woman comes to acknowledge that her lover is dead, she screams for help in a sustained cry that falls nearly two octaves – a challenge that did not daunt Herlitzius.

In the remainder of the work, the Woman sings to her lover’s corpse in terms that leave ambiguous whether this is reality, a dream, or a psychotic episode, and also whether it was a rival, or she herself, who has slain her lover. The libretto’s stage directions also throw in a touch of necrophilia for good measure, having the Woman bestow kisses on her dead lover and open her dress as she suggests that the warmth of her breasts might provide relief for his cold hand.

Schoenberg’s score is robust and colourful, with frequent changes of tempo and interjections from varying combinations of instruments. Rattle evoked a precise reading, maintaining a fine balance with Herlitzius throughout. Although this music lies further along the path to atonality than does the Chamber Symphony, it also felt very much connected to the Austro-German orchestral tradition for which Schoenberg, revolutionary though he was, never lost respect.

In Brahms’s Second, the orchestra’s nearly note-perfect execution produced the beautiful sounds one expects from such a superb ensemble, but a better balance might have been achieved by adding more woodwind players to offset the dominance of the strings. For much of the performance, the flow of the music seemed more impeded than enabled by Rattle’s interpretive interventions. The orchestra might well have produced a more compelling account had the players been permitted to draw more heavily on their collective experience from the Philharmoniker’s countless performances of this symphony.

As the first movement began, Rattle seemed to be holding the music back, as if the portion of the exposition that preceded the second theme – which the cello section intoned beautifully – were a sort of introduction. One wonders how that material might have sounded the second time around had Rattle observed the repeat, but he did not do so, the development section’s fugal passages proving the most arresting part of the opening movement.

The rich sound of the cellos and fine solos on horn, oboe and flute launched the Adagio, but for all its sweetness of tone and interesting counterpoint from the low strings and bassoon, the movement seemed a pleasant journey without a discernable destination. The third movement was highlighted by brilliant string playing in the presto passages that twice interrupt the woodwinds’ dance music. The Ländler was somewhat jaunty in its first appearance, but became more tender and melancholy when it recurred for a third time. After a very brief pause, Rattle plunged into the concluding Allegro with considerable propulsion. As the movement proceeded, it evoked excitement that had been lacking before, driving forward more insistently toward the climax. Along the way, there was fine wind playing and lots of rhythmic variation, all masterfully executed. Brahms calls upon the brass sparingly in this work, but uses it to full advantage in the coda, gloriously played by the Philharmoniker brass, to bring the symphony to a thrilling conclusion.

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