Berliner Philharmoniker/Rattle (1)

Beethoven
Symphony No.4 in B flat, Op.60
Mahler
Symphony No.1

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle


Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 3 September, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Sir Simon Rattle. Photograph: Mat Hennek EMIWith this particular programme and one of the world’s leading orchestras and its much-loved Chief Conductor expectations inevitably ran high. Had this been politics rather than music, the spinmeisters would have been working overtime to deflate expectations. It was even difficult to get into the Royal Albert Hall, the main box-office entrance having been closed evidently due a small piece of falling masonry. Perhaps this was an omen.

On one level it would be hard to fault this concert’s execution which was almost unfailingly superb, although as if to prove that even the Gods themselves suffer the occasional lapse the poor lady harpist had to endure the torment of a broken string in the Mahler (she looked both surprised and mortified). On another level this was a salutary reminder that even if all the best ingredients are there, success is by no means guaranteed.

Beethoven 4 occupies a special and wholly treasurable place in the canon. Its exploratory introduction, just 39 bars, sets the tone for everything which follows and precisely encapsulates that perennial Beethovenian pre-occupation of Adagio darkness giving way to the blinding, exhilarating light of Allegro vivace. Here balances were exemplary and every note from that gentle opening bass pizzicato was present and correct but completely lacking in pent-up anticipation, nor was there any sense of release or exhilaration when the Allegro finally burst in.

Tempos in all four movements were sensible enough and avoided the more obvious pitfalls, but there was a prevailing blandness and lack of tension, Beethoven without the gruffness. The granitic climax of the slow movement – a descending sequence marked sf on every note – simply chugged, whilst the movement’s long-breathed cantabile theme – surely one of Beethoven’s most elevated inspirations – was distinctive for its lack of innigkeit (only a German word will do) rather than making one catch one’s breath. Part of the problem is that Simon Rattle seems unable to make up his mind whether he is conducting a ‘period’ band – with the occasional genuflection to ’authentic’ practice – or is the inheritor of the grand German tradition. The result is a curious hybrid. Nor does it help that he seems reluctant to phrase or sustain those long string lines as if to do so would be inauthentic and an offence to ‘period’ practice.

Sir Simon Rattle. Photograph: Mat Hennek EMIThe Mahler was magnificent for its controlled polish and was distinguished by some superb individual contributions – notably joint-concertmasters Daishin Kashimoto and Guy Braunstein’s little duet in the ‘Frère Jacques’ movement, and by the quite magical playing of all four woodwind principals in the opening movement.

Here at least the Berliners’ soundworld was wholly in place and for the most part Rattle’s basic instincts about tempo and character in this music are relatively reliable – for example, a comparatively leisurely Ländler and a notably tender Volkweise section in the third movement – but the conductor’s persistent micro-management of detail really gets in the way of the longer line or of the music ever culminating satisfactorily. One significant moment will suffice to illustrate this; after the first movement’s steigerung climax there is a mad but carefully planned dash for the finishing line midway through which Rattle for no reason introduced a ritardando that completely undermined the forward momentum.

The other issue is Rattle’s apparent inability to produce real weight and intensity. For example, after the finale’s eruptive opening the music runs to a standstill with a series of fff snarls from the trombones – tame here – and the long string theme marked Sehr gesangvoll culminates in a single bar of fff where the intensity needs to be palpable, the whole string section experiencing a collective orgasm of vibrato. Here it was merely loud and it was left to Stefan Dohr’s beautiful horn solo immediately following to give us an inkling of what had been missed.

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