Berliner Philharmoniker/Simon Rattle at Carnegie Hall – Beethoven Cycle (2) – Leonore No.1 and Symphonies 2 & 5

Overture, Leonore No.1, Op.138
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.36
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette

Reviewed: 18 November, 2015
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Sir Simon RattlePhotograph: © Mat Hennek EMI ClassicsWhen a piano recital is announced featuring Beethoven Sonatas, we generally expect to find a modern concert grand in place. And Beethoven certainly would be pleased with such an instrument, as he himself was known to break strings in order to produce more volume. So why has it become a practice to scale back mighty orchestras, ensembles that no longer play in the Palais of a nobleman, but in large concert halls? This becomes especially frustrating when it’s the Berlin Philharmonic, renowned for its lush sound (and commanding top ticket prices). Furthermore, when the conductor’s concept of Beethoven is full-blown, lively, and virile, then chamber proportions just won’t do.

For the Second Symphony it was ten first violins down to three double basses, the firsts sounding thin and overly bright. Simon Rattle nevertheless went full steam ahead, in a dynamic reading of the piece, those fiddles valiantly struggling to be heard, not always successfully. The brisk tempos perhaps were a bit easier to execute with a small section, but the BP is such a phenomenally accomplished orchestra that this should be but a minor concern. (Just as an aside, while the audience was almost cough-free, during the most dramatic moment in the Finale – the sudden shift from a fortissimo dominant chord of A to a pianissimo F-sharp 6th, which had been perfectly executed – a loud sneeze sent a chuckle through the hall.)

The complement had been slightly larger (12-10-8-6-5) during Leonore No.1, which followed as a cut-back version of the more expansive No.2 and No.3, all associated as overtures to the opera that became Fidelio. The same string size re-appeared after the interval for the Fifth Symphony, which made a big difference to the sound, but it still was far from ideal for such powerful music in such a big venue. Rattle launched into a full-blooded account, heeding Beethoven’s basic speeds. But every so often he completely broke character, such as during the first movement’s oboe solo, where time almost stood still. Other such episodes occurred mainly in the Andante con moto, when the lyrical sections just before each restatement of the theme were rendered in an almost impressionistic way, and pianissimos were interpreted as if a Mahlerian ppp.

The Scherzo blazed ahead and made one marvel at the skill of the cellos and double basses during the Trio, although any semblance of clarity will have to be abandoned at such speeds. The transition to the Finale, which in the hands of someone like Furtwängler could raise the hair on the back of one’s neck, was curiously lacking in tension, much-less menace. Played softly, without much character, the violins forgoing vibrato, it sounded merely thin and empty and did not prepare what should be the glorious C-major entrance of the Finale. Not until near the close of the exposition repeat was there any sense of majesty. And while on the whole this movement worked up quite a bit of excitement, Rattle time and again curiously held back on the more lyrical episodes, taking the energy out, most frustratingly so at the very end. Here Beethoven keeps hammering on C, until he finally says his last word. But inserting a question mark amidst the many exclamation points weakens the statement. The Berliner Philharmoniker played magnificently throughout.

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