Berliner Philharmoniker 1

Variations for Orchestra, Op.31
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)

Christiane Oelze (soprano)
Birgit Remmert (mezzo-soprano)
Timothy Robinson (tenor)
John Relyea (bass)

City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 5 September, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

If concert programmes had sub-titles in the way now common to every public body – you know the sort of thing, the dust-cart with a sign saying “Working for a cleaner environment” – this concert could have been dubbed “See, the Conq’ring Hero comes”. After all, it is not every day one of our own returns as Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic for what is traditionally one of the high-points of the Proms season, Beethoven’s 9th.

The British have an unpleasant habit of knocking their own. Far be it from me to underestimate Sir Simon’s achievement in leapfrogging from Birmingham to Berlin, or his ability to turn people from all walks of life onto classical music. However, rather like an actor who becomes accustomed to giving his performance, Rattle really does run the risk of slipping into self-parody. Of course, it is generally preferable that a conductor not be totally ignored by an orchestra, but when the interpretation becomes so personalised as to become a vehicle for some form of psycho-drama acted out on stage, it can become wearing.

At this concert the music frequently came a poor second. Is it really necessary with an orchestra of this quality that the conductor underlines every single dynamic or tempo marking? If we sometimes thought Furtwängler and Karajan mannered, at least their music-making seldom lost that sweep which carries a piece constantly forward whatever the momentary deviations. In the opening movement of the 9th it was frequently hard to tell what Rattle’s base tempo actually was, so constant was the micro-managing of every nuance, so persistent the underlining of every point. Particularly irritating was the persistent anticipation of ritardandos, constantly dragging the tempo back and necessitating awkward gear changes thereafter. So febrile and over-heated was the atmosphere that even the movement’s seismic climax passed for very little – it was just one incident among many.

Rather better was the scherzo, although one could hardly call Rattle’s tempo Molto Vivace, and the coda’s stringendo was misjudged. At least the slow movement allowed us to hear quite glorious string playing, the violas and second violins combining in the contrasting Andante moderato to produce the sort of sound often dreamt of but seldom actually heard. Even here though Rattle could not resist tampering with dynamics.

Best of all was the finale where Rattle’s high energy and penchant for the theatrical was for the most part put to good use, aided by some splendidly robust singing from the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus and a strong solo quartet (Timothy Robinson replacing Jonas Kaufmann) including a notably stentorian John Relyea and the imposing Birgit Remmert. Particularly impressive was the Chorus’s ability to conjure reserves of tone and precisely observed dynamics. Even in this most dramatic movement though Rattle could not resist over-cooking the Alla Marcia section, dragging it out unnecessarily, and exaggerating the acceleration into the work’s culmination. It’s as if he does not trust the music enough to play it straight.

More satisfactory was Schoenberg Variations, music placing extreme demands on the performers. Rattle had his hands full, yet gilded the lily, making the music positively Straussian in its opulence and occasionally clouding the clarity of the argument through an excess of emotion. But it would be a churlish soul who failed to acknowledge the orchestra’s absolute mastery of this most challenging score; to play it this well is a real achievement, even for the Berliners.

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