Berliner Philharmoniker/Rattle in London – Schubert, Schoenberg & Mahler in Queen Elizabeth Hall

Quartettsatz in C minor, D703
String Quartet No.2, Op.10
Piano Quartet in A minor
Chamber Symphony No.1, Op.9

Anna Prohaska (soprano), Guy Braunstein & Christoph Streuli (violins), Amihal Grosz (viola) & Ludwig Quandt (cello) and Bishara Harouni (piano)

Members of Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle [Schoenberg Chamber Symphony]

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 20 February, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre – Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

When towards the end of the first decade of the twentieth-century Arnold Schoenberg was breaking free of tonality in his music, reception for his works ranged from the awestruck to the openly hostile. Just over one-hundred years on, his music has established sufficient standing to be the centrepiece of the first concert of a four-day London residency from Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle, shared between Southbank Centre and Barbican Centre. Performances of these hugely important transitional works remain relatively rare despite their historic stature, perhaps because of their relatively unusual forces and the virtuosity required in performing them. In this instance they provided an ideal match of artists and repertoire.

From the outset of the performance of the Second String Quartet it was clear considerable preparation had been spent getting beneath the surface of this extraordinary music with its sheer profusion of notes, the four musicians (all members of Berliner Philharmoniker) employed almost constantly. Counterpoint was clearly and helpfully projected throughout an eventful but emotive first movement. Torture and anguish came closer to the surface as the work progressed, and the scherzo moved between blustery ensemble passages and moments of extreme poignancy, such as cellist Ludwig Quant quoting the plaintive strains of a Viennese plague song. Anna Prohaska quickly acclimatised to the rarefied atmosphere, taking the tormented text of Stefan George’s “Litanei” close to heart, her ascent to the principle climax towards the close shocking in its angularity. With the famous line “I feel the air of another planet”, the breakthrough to atonality was fully achieved, the strings setting the scene with a vividly-coloured introduction, the muted passages beautifully shaded until the insistent tread of Amihal Grosz and Quandt took hold and an increasingly otherworldly sense was discovered as Prohaska grew in stature, the work ending with a perfunctory but eventually radiant resolution.

Sir Simon Rattle. Photograph: Mat Hennek EMIThe First Chamber Symphony, more obviously tonal and thematic, was conducted with gusto by Sir Simon Rattle, who appears to have increased the speed of his interpretation since recording the work in 1993 with members of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. As might be expected Berliners met its technical demands head on, the first theme receiving the greatest possible projection after an expansive introduction. Schoenberg’s debt to Wagner is often highlighted when discussing the musical language of this piece, but here the Mahlerian connections shone through, in the melodic and harmonic workings but also in the wonderful sonorities made possible through the horns of Stefan Dohr and Sarah Willis and the bassoons of Daniele Damiano and Markus Weidmann. Rattle leant heavily on the tiller on a couple of occasions, signposting the structural joins, but the ghostly double bass harmonics and the ensuing intensity of the Adagio section kept emotions running high. The emphatic recapitulation and finish emerged with some style. Sir Simon had been seated in the audience earlier. When taking applause at the end of his conducting appearance, he did so as a member of the ensemble.

Putting Schoenberg’s tonally-stretched music in context were isolated movements from Schubert and Mahler, both influential composers on the development of his career and which lent a pleasingly symmetrical feel to this concert given as part of the Southbank Centre’s “Shell Classic International” series. Mahler’s Piano Quartet movement, a student piece, was rhythmically elusive to begin with as Bishara Harouni found his feet, though a performance of brio soon unfolded, particularly when the string lines were in unison. Curiously inward-looking at times, the movement contains uncanny hints of the composer’s future development, and in the lead-up to its recapitulation Harouni’s stylish adjustment of tempo suggested a full awareness of these. Schubert’s Quartettsatz was curiously dark and withdrawn initially, a mysterious atmosphere generated by softly repeated notes. Only occasionally were shafts of light allowed to break the surface, the second theme and major-key transitions offering greater optimism amongst the permeating mood of nervousness.

  • Further Berliner Philharmoniker concerts in Barbican Hall on 21 & 22 February and in Royal Festival Hall on 23 February
  • Barbican

  • Southbank Centre

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