Berliner Philharmoniker/Rattle in London – Haydn, Hosokawa & Schubert in Barbican Hall

Symphony No.99 in E flat
Concerto for Horn and Orchestra – Moment of Blossoming [Co-commissioned by Stiftung Berliner Philharmoniker, Barbican Centre and Amsterdam Concertgebouw: UK premiere]
Symphony No.9 in C, D944 (Great)

Stefan Dohr (horn)

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 22 February, 2011
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The third of the four Berliner Philharmoniker concerts conducted by Sir Simon Rattle in February 2011 (and which sold out on announcement in late 2009!), equally shared between Southbank Centre and Barbican Centre, was perhaps the most attractive on paper.

The Haydn symphony was stylishly played, its elegant and pensive introduction finely characterised. This was an affectionate and incident-packed performance, woodwinds to the fore (this was the first time that Haydn had used clarinets in a symphony), played with character, spirit and precision and – pun alert – with rattling good timpani. After an eloquent slow movement – Rattle relishing its divergences, the woodwind playing exceptional – the Minuet enjoyed festive stomp, and the finale was a nice blend of insouciance and muscle. Throughout, Rattle’s attention to dynamics was consistently ear-catching and the performance as a whole reminded of, and did justice to, Joseph Haydn’s remarkable and inexhaustible genius.

There may have been only five double basses for Schubert’s ‘Great C major’ Symphony (it was three for the Haydn), but, my word, ranged across the back of the hall (they were left-positioned for Haydn) they had a wonderful presence that gave the bass writing a life of its own. The performance was as much about orchestral splendour as about penetrating into Schubert’s psyche. A beautiful sound, exact balance (aided by delightfully honeyed and understated trombones, for example) and well-chosen tempos were the successes here. Also, gratefully, Rattle seems to have ironed-out some of the mannerisms that undermined his recording of the work; not in the scherzo though, which still has too many elongations, emphases and changes of volume that remain no more than distractions. Rattle was also less than generous with repeats; only the first of the scherzo and the first of the trio were taken (the recording has more but not all). In the Barbican Hall, the two horns (Rattle resisted any temptation to double the winds, let alone having a need for ‘bumpers’) magically floated the symphony’s opening, the Allegro justly balancing majesty and momentum. Throughout the work one was consistently impressed by the transparency of it all. The second-movement Andante con moto had a feeling of gravitas with later episodes exquisitely shaped; and the finale, unhurried, had an appealing gemütlich quality without quite being as unperturbed as Barbirolli and Knappertsbusch made it. Journey’s End of this agreeable canter was signalled with real heft, so the held-back, relatively effete final chords didn’t quite relate or resound enough.

Toshio Hoskokawa’s Horn Concerto was but ten days old in terms of public awareness when this UK premiere occurred. This flower-blossoming piece is more a piece for orchestra and horn obbligato, for Stefan Dohr (principal of Berliner Philharmoniker) rarely if ever has a solo spot; rather the soloist’s-position gives the horn a certain prominence but remains ‘first among equal’ with a colourful but not excessively large orchestra that includes atmospheric use of percussion and uses brass at various points within the auditorium to add a Surround Sound element. It’s a subtle and suggestive work that avoids clichés and which conjures an awareness of growth as well as a lonely, haunted but not inhospitable place. This refined and rarefied score, no doubt performed remarkably well, and owing something to Takemitsu, is just the right length (16 minutes) and seemed to arrive just where it should and had always been going, evincing a powerful if inconspicuous sense of structure and direction.

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