Philadelphia Orchestra/Simon Rattle – In New York (27 January)

Tristan und Isolde – Prelude to Act 1
Symphony No.10 [New York premiere]
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.73

The Philadelphia Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 27 January, 2004
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City

This concert began with a wonderfully cohesive and flowing performance of the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, but the principal draw on the program was the New York premiere of Hans Werner Henze’s Symphony No.10, a substantial work completed in 2002 and first performed in August of that year at the Lucerne Festival by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. As Henze indicated in an interview, it was Rattle who inspired the work: “When composing the Tenth, I thought of Simon as a Lucifer, as a man with a pure and elegant English mind, with subtle hands and the sensory apparatus of a modern man in love with the world.”

The symphony follows a traditional four-movement plan, and the titles of the movements recall those of Beethoven’s Pastoral: A Storm, A Hymn, A Dance, A Dream. This, of course, does not prevent Henze from taking advantage of the full resources of a modern orchestra; a timpanist and six other percussionists playing a variety of familiar and less familiar instruments are well occupied throughout the work.

Henze has described his Tenth as “pure nature music”, but instead of transporting us to an idyllic pastoral setting, he seems more interested in evoking psychological states. The inner scenes portrayed in this weighty, dramatic and deftly orchestrated symphony are painted mostly in dark colors.

The restless and turbulent first movement, driven largely by percussion accents and shimmering high strings, builds up a storm of sounds leading to an enormous climax, which then calms down and ends on a decrescendo, as do all the movements of this symphony. During the second movement, scored for strings alone and played slowly with impassioned vibrato, Rattle elicited particularly beautiful playing from the cellos. The third movement, scored most prominently for percussion, was breathtaking. The excitement built as brass, winds and basses joined the percussionists in a frenetic ‘dance’ that moved ahead through a succession of rapidly changing meters. The dark, driving music continued in the finale, in which all the instrumental groups of the orchestra were brought together in a series of fortissimo climaxes until an unexpected decrescendo brought the symphony to a quiet end. Throughout the entire work, Sir Simon displayed a remarkable ability to clarify the orchestral textures, even in the densest passages.

The second half was devoted to Brahms’s Second Symphony. After the excited and energetic playing elicited in the Henze, Sir Simon’s reading of the Brahms seemed unaccountably slow and dull. Except for a few, fleeting moments of tension, the first three movements seemed to crawl along. Only in the finale did the melodious music of this symphony really come to life.

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