Symphony No.3 in F, Op.90
Begleitungsmusik zu einer Lichtspielscene, Op.34
Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98
Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette
Reviewed: 13 November, 2009
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
There is always enormous interest in New York with any appearance by the Berliner Philharmoniker. The orchestra’s legendary reputation has garnered a loyal following here, and it is no surprise that all three concerts in the BP’s present series were sold out well in advance, Simon Rattle leading programs juxtaposing works by Johannes Brahms and Arnold Schoenberg, a fully justified pairing, in that Schoenberg was strongly influenced by – not to mention an outspoken admirer of – Brahms. The small matter of music business and marketing also influenced the program: EMI recently released a Brahms symphony cycle by Rattle and the Berliners, and is putting a robust promotional push behind the set.
The Berliners were very physically engaged and highly responsive to Rattle’s incisive direction and surprisingly unexaggerated approach to Schoenberg’s Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene. The work was not written for a film, but one could imagine it as accompaniment for visionary expressionist Fritz Lang – or, for that matter, even a few scenes from Carol Reed’s “The Third Man”. Each of the three brief, connected movements (‘Threatening danger’, ‘Fear’, Disaster) was strongly evocative, the Berliners bringing great color and finesse to Schoenberg’s delicate scoring. In this repertoire, Rattle’s restrained approach invested a great deal of trust in the players and it paid huge musical dividends, bringing uncanny character to one of Schoenberg’s most challenging serialist-period works.
Both of Brahms’s symphonies were generally beautifully played, yet the overall effect was for the most part uneven and ultimately disappointing. The Third Symphony’s outer movements lacked incisive rhythmic pulse, with the orchestra bringing far too much legato and soft-focus attack to practically every note. A few minor lapses of string ensemble in the first movement also caught this listener by surprise. But there were also moments of extraordinary music-making, especially some particularly beautiful wind-playing in the second movement, and a satisfying third movement with an ideal combination of dance-like momentum and beautiful melodic playing from the strings.
The opening movement of the Fourth Symphony was marred by Rattle’s willful rubato and rallentando that sucked the wind from the movement’s sails. The second movement was much smoother going, with standout woodwind-playing and a remarkably memorable repetition of the main theme by the massed violas, cellos and double basses, whose glowing sonority is arguably unmatched. The orchestra sacrificed nothing in rhythmic impetus in the swift third movement even with soft-focus accents; the music conveyed less-manic energy and hard-pressed intensity and took on a gentle, jocular character — in strong contrast to the finale in which Rattle again reverted to tempo re-jigging that pushed some of the variations too hard and left others dragging, but thankfully hit a satisfying stride in the last few and the coda.
It is worth noting that Berliner Philharmoniker now sports a large number of young and very enthusiastic players. And the signature-sound of the Berlin Philharmonic is in flux — there are many trappings of traditional (especially in the double reeds, horns and lower strings), but the orchestra is taking on a noticeably more cosmopolitan sound, more pan-European than that of the more German-sounding Staatskapelle Berlin and Staatskapelle Dresden. There is no doubt that Berliner Philharmoniker remains one of the world’s greatest orchestras – but that special, unique identity seems to be on the wane.