Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Simon Rattle at Barbican Hall – Brahms, Webern & Schumann

Symphony No.3 in F, Op.90
Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op.6 [Revised Version]
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.97 (Rhenish)

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 17 June, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

They made a neat programme, the autumnal Third Symphony of Johannes Brahms, closing quietly, all passion spent, contrasted with his close friend Robert Schumann’s outgoing and scenic ‘Rhenish’ Third, ending ebulliently. As a spicy interlude – yet part of the line – were six haunting miniatures by Anton Webern, aphoristic yet immense in their implication.

Sir Simon Rattle. Photograph: Mat Hennek EMIThe Vienna Philharmonic glowed at the opening of the Brahms, Simon Rattle moving the music along, conjuring vibrant timbres, and integrating the reflective, songful contrasts. Here was the most-dulcet of clarinet solos as well as well-judged dynamic contrasts – absorbed into an emotional statement and increasing in intensity with the return of the exposition. Previous Rattle Brahms 3s (with the Berliners) have been stolid. This with Vienna had greater spontaneity for all that the notes had been examined, strings (violins antiphonal) fiery without losing warmth. The second movement covered a gamut of feelings and hues, meltingly beautiful at its mid-point – quite a chameleon this chap Brahms – and Rattle convincingly moved into the slow dance of the third without a break (also an Abbado ploy), made bittersweet. The finale was less persuasive, coursing with conviction, yes, but the horns (as elsewhere) could be over-prominent and muddying of textures. This is music tinged by ‘fall of the leaf’ serenity, finally winning through, a peacefulness for the 50-year-old composer reaching this age-milestone at once confident and reflective if with much more to say in the years remaining (not too many as it happens). The audience observed Rattle’s lengthy conducted silence before applauding.

Vienna Philharmonic in the Musikverein. Photograph: Richard SchusterWhereas the Brahms had been rich-toned and full-blooded, the ‘Rhenish’ Symphony enjoyed lightness of being, leanness of sound, much chiaroscuro and many inflexions – making bunkum of the notion that Schumann couldn’t orchestrate. With a slightly reduced string section (double basses down to five) and less vibrato, Rattle unleashed the ‘happy feelings’ (pace Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony) of the opening movement, swift but not rushed, horns joyful without obscuring. Yet such fleetness became typical across the whole; not everything in this adorable five-movement symphony was fully expanded, and Rattle’s nods to ‘authentic’ aspects (which hadn’t intervened during the Brahms) became too stylised. Clarity of detail was a plus, but the fourth-movement description of Cologne Cathedral lacked awe (difficult to forget Giulini’s Los Angeles recording) and if the finale tripped merrily along it also fell too easily into a groove. However in-house this music is to the VPO, and however adaptable its musicians, there is more to this Symphony than met the ear on this occasion.

In between – and maybe we could have had two performances (Oliver Knussen style), one straight after the Brahms as well as just before the Schumann – Webern’s great Opus 6 (1909/28) once again compelled with its economy and largesse (and there’s so much to absorb). Rattle’s championing of the Second Viennese School has been amongst his finest hours (minutes in Webern’s case) and was so again. Fastidiously rehearsed (mandatory in this music), every sound was made significant. Each of the Pieces has its fascination – Rattle opting for the large orchestra of the Revision rather than the huge one of the Original – but the Fourth, a bleak funeral march coming from afar, percussion used with such important discretion, is the pearl, sparse, dark and sinister, building one of the most thrilling and harshest crescendos in the repertoire, unflinching here, Rattle then going straight into its aftermath, the numbed Fifth.

The number of women in the VPO’s ranks is often a worry to some, so – To Whom It May Concern – there were four (a string trio and a harpist); and, equally for the record, there were no encores.

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