Violin Concerto No.1, Op.35
Symphony No.4 in G
Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)
Lisa Milne (soprano)
Sir Simon Rattle
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 31 August, 2006
Venue: Usher Hall, Edinburgh
I believe this was Simon Rattle’s first visit to the Edinburgh Festival with Berliner Philharmoniker and with a much better pairing for Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto than the forthcoming Prom (2 September) when Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony replaces Mahler’s Fourth. Both the Szymanowski and Mahler works have an important basis in poetry, although Szymanowski’s is hidden within the programmatic inspiration of the music, taken from Tadeusz Myciński’s poem “May Night”.
Not surprisingly, even though Claudio Abbado (whom Rattle succeeded at Berliner Philharmoniker, when it was content to be known as the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra) was also in town on the other side of Edinburgh conducting “The Magic Flute”, there was a real sense of excitement as the packed Usher Hall audience watched the last-minute stage rearrangement in the minutes preceding the concert.
For the Szymanowski, Rattle had violas to his right and both sections of violins to his left, with the two harps and celesta grouped together in front of the woodwinds. Long a champion of Szymanowski, Rattle obviously loves the Polish composer’s brittle and individual style, perfectly encapsulated in the single span of the First World War-written First Violin Concerto. Frank Peter Zimmermann was equal to Rattle in his fervour for the concerto and what enraptured the ear is the uniqueness of Szymanowski’s soundworld. Of course there’s too much to take in during a single performance (I knew the work so much better during the South Bank’s complete Szymanowski festival in the early 1990s) but, despite the suspended microphones, this performance did not seem to be recorded – there were no individual microphones to pick up either Zimmermann or Lisa Milne in the Mahler. (The Proms Szymanowski is on both Radio 3 and BBC2 from 6.30.)
Zimmermann obliged with an encore, some solo Bach (one of the sarabandes at a guess). Utterly rapt it ended with a long single note notable for its utmost consistency as bow moved across the string.
It was similar string-playing that made the Berliner’s Mahler Fourth so special as well. Their unanimity of tone effortlessly dismisses the recent carping of some German critics about the orchestra’s health under Rattle. With a layout change – the harp moved over to be beside the cor anglais, and second violins and violas swapping position – as well as a change of leader (Toru Yasunaga led for the Szymanowski), Rattle eked out Mahler’s soundworld just as perceptively as he did Szymanowski’s, his double basses (in an L formation behind cellos and second violins) and cellos sounding glorious pizzicatos in the resonant Usher Hall acoustic. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard this orchestra sound so good as this in Mahler. That’s not to say that Rattle pursues Karajan-like beauty at all times. He’s too good a conductor and responsive to a composer’s needs for that. Mahler demands some rough edges, and here, especially in the scherzo, Rattle’s attention to detail offered greater depth to the score than is often heard. Guy Braunstein’s scordature second instrument, tuned a tone up, which he swaps for his normal violin three times, was as bright and acerbic in sound as the sheen of its varnish, making much more audibly marked interruptions than perhaps we normally hear in this movement.
I’d never noticed the similarities between the opening of the scherzo to the brass calls and woodwind answers of the first ‘Nachtmusik’ of the Seventh Symphony, nor how close the majestic third movement, with its harp pointing to the string sonorities, is to the Adagietto to the Fifth. It was certainly this ‘Ruhevoll’ that formed the symphony’s heart for Rattle’s conception and rarely have I been so utterly captivated with it. He also here followed Mark Elder’s lead in having the soprano come out through the orchestra at the movement’s final climax, a visual coup that not only stops any chance of audience applause if entering between movements, but also works well with the music.
Lisa Milne, in black (chiming in well with Jonathan Nott’s insistence that the work is about death), rendered the ‘Wunderhorn’ text with clear meaning, and again I was struck with both Mahler’s deliberate contrary music to some of the words and what sounds like the extraordinary return of the bells from the first movement (in much more vehement fashion), but which, in fact, was written first, ostensibly to be one of the already-many movements of the Third Symphony.
At the end Rattle shook hands not only with the front desks of strings, but also walked through to the basses (and had an extended conversation with the principal player) and then to the winds. Quite right too! Berliner Philharmoniker is in glorious sound and health!