Berliner Philharmoniker/Simon Rattle at Carnegie Hall – Beethoven Cycle (1) – Symphonies 1 & Eroica

Symphony No.1 in C, Op.21
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Fred Kirshnit

Reviewed: 17 November, 2015
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Sir Simon RattlePhotograph: © Johann Sebastian HanelIf Beethoven had died after the completion of his C-major Symphony, would he be remembered as a symphonist? Yes, a resounding yes. Simon Rattle and the Berliners are in Carnegie Hall for five nights to present Beethoven’s nine symphonic masterpieces and it takes some rather discriminating listening not to be overwhelmed.

When Rattle accepted the position in Berlin he vowed to transform the sound of the ensemble away from the silken atmosphere so painstakingly constructed by Claudio Abbado and rather toward an angular approach more conversant with the current century. He is now on the cusp of departing Berlin in 2018 and taking up his LSO directorship the year before, and this diligent conductor offers Beethoven Symphonies in an entirely new and very idiosyncratic light.

The rendition of No.1 was revelatory, a through-the-looking-glass journey that was the polar opposite of an effort by the period-instrument crowd. Here instead was a superbly Classical Symphony transformed to accommodate a rather icy harshness, a chilling world of sonic precision that jettisoned lyricism in favor of precision. As an experiment it was fascinating; as a rendition of a great effort of the past it was thought-provoking at best, jarring at worst.

On one end of the Piazza di San Marco there are fourteen statues of emperors of the ancient world. The empty fifteenth, and central, place was reserved in the early-19th-century for Napoleon but much to the delight of the Venetians he was defeated and disgraced before he could be honored. Beethoven was not as fortunate and had to endure a maturity of regret for having dedicated his ‘Eroica’ Symphony to “the little corporal”.

We trust Simon Rattle and so are willing to listen to his ideas, but this ‘Eroica’ was beyond the pale. Gone were the sorrow and the pity, the incredibly deep exploration of the death of the individual vis-à-vis the extremities of world events. When Arthur Nikisch died, Wilhelm Furtwängler had his Gewandhaus audience stand during the ‘Funeral March’, a sincerely emotional tribute. Rattle will have none of this, transforming the piece that introduced the 19th-century and its new attitudes toward life and death into a collection of individual moments that were thrust out in bas-relief to emphasize their tremulous sonic qualities.

This type of experimentation would be more effective if all the participants played their parts, but there were unfortunately more than a few miscues from the, woodwinds not entering together for example, this listener being left to wonder how deeply do the Berlin musicians share their maestro’s forward-looking world view, especially with him ready to leave. Rattle is certainly attempting a new high-wire act. What will be the result when he lands at Heathrow?

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