Berliner Philharmoniker 2

La mer – Three symphonic sketches
Éclairs sur l’Au-delà …

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 6 September, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

For their second programme, Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic (as we’re not supposed to call it) presented a typically astute pairing, unimaginable in the Karajan era though by no means more ‘advanced’ than the sort of fare offered by his successor. Claudio Abbado has himself been conducting La Mer lately – he brought it to the Proms with the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester – and the score received a further injection of Mediterranean luminosity from Sir Simon. He did not follow the example of Abbado and Karajan in restoring the finale’s fanfares as present in Debussy’s 1905 score from bar 237 – always a surprise if you’re expecting them. Nor was there quite the sense of abandon I was expecting.

Instead a seemingly effortless, sometimes breathtaking transparency prevailed, mightily impressive on its own terms. Need Debussy’s sea be choppier? Some less than enthused Promenaders clearly thought so. The Berliners rarely played with the full weight of sonority that remains uniquely theirs; the fine detailing and absolute security was achieved at the expense of cumulative corporate thrust.

In the Messiaen, a work Rattle has performed in Birmingham and Philadelphia as well as Berlin, his approach is rather more positive, fervent and chunky. It might even be reckoned un-Gallic in its lack of insouciance. Which is not to say that the results are less than superb. The final major orchestral utterance by a composer in his eighties, these “lightning flashes from the beyond…” was initially greeted as a low-key pendant to his oeuvre. And as with Sir Michael Tippett’s The Rose Lake, the frankly sectional, simplified construction will not be to all tastes.

Clocking in at just over an hour, Sylvain Cambreling for one takes 76 minutes (Hänssler), Sir Simon’s bold and visceral interpretation posits a new kind of ‘selective’ orchestral showpiece. Take the majestic opening panel for woodwind and brass, ‘Apparition du Christ glorieux’, a chorale plainly designed to ease the listener away from the hustle and bustle of modern living and into a hieratic, contemplative world. For Rattle this did not preclude a sense of onward progression from one phrase to the next, the intertwining voices of the brass still solemn but no longer static. Alas, as its music died away, one could hear the inescapably earthly noises-off that more than ever bedevil the Proms.

The rapturous fifth movement, ‘Demeurer dans l’amour’, was bigger, more expressive than I have heard it, with the main idea liberated from the generalised string texture. The Berliners’ string playing was quite simply gorgeous, even at stratospheric heights way above the stave. There was – I think – meant to be some humour too, as in the antic exuberance of the song of the lyrebird (of Canberra) in the bizarrely literal third section, ‘L’oiseau-lyre et la Ville-Fiancée’. From our privileged position in a stalls seat, it was possible for my companion to ‘see’ the curious, Disneyesque halo around the ecstatic finale, ‘Le Christ, lumière du Paradis’: three triangles insistently tinkling for the duration, only one being mentioned in the booklet notes. In this last return to the world of L’Ascension, Messiaen calls for intensity of expression and infinite calm. And with this conductor in this repertoire there was certainly more than enough of the former.

Despite its ultra-discriminating use of an orchestra of 128 players, Éclairs sur l’Au-delà … is a piece that came off very well in the Albert Hall, effectively penetrating the void even when just a few instruments were playing, a tribute also to the power of its executants. Even the mood-shattering applause at the close came after a decent interval. The maestro seemed gratified by that, less Andy Pandy than grizzled gibbon in the tropical heat. It may have been the orchestra members who were most anxious to leave what must have been an exceedingly hot stage. Though stuffed with luminaries, the hall was not quite as full as advertised and of course not everyone stayed the course. The lighting must have deterred a few aesthetes, palsied blue for the Debussy and scrofulous pink for the second half. I dread to think what Messiaen, given his synaesthesia, would have thought of it all!

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