Berliner Philharmoniker/Rattle – 1 … Tristan & Turangalîla

Tristan und Isolde – Prelude und Liebestod
Turangalîla Symphony

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano) & Tristan Murail (ondes martenot)

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 2 September, 2008
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Sir Simon Rattle. Photograph: Stuart Ramson/APHaving missed last year’s Proms season, Sir Simon Rattle returned to Kensington Gore for the first of two Proms with Berliner Philharmoniker, as part of a short European tour which encompasses the Salzburg Festival, a visit to Rattle’s home city (the orchestra’s first ever visit to Liverpool), then Dublin, before returning to Berlin to play this very programme twice as part of the Berlin Festival.

This concert proved to be a highlight of this Proms season. Intelligent programming too: bringing 19th- and 20th-century responses to the Tristan and Isolde legend, both epics of the repertoire, although Wagner’s was given in the version which encompasses what has been termed “the greatest cut” in operatic history – just the ‘Prelude and Liebestod’.

“Just” – that’s no way to describe this hugely impressive performance which formed the concert’s (short) first half. Rattle (without score) not so much conducted but drew seamless music out of his players, as if pulling the sound from their swaying bodies. Like no other orchestra, Berliner Philharmoniker seems to move as one, or at least each section seems to behave collectively, and they seem more cohesive and packed more closely together than other orchestras.

Indeed, in the ‘Prelude’ the swaying strings even emulated the ebb and flow of water, and at the end of the ‘Liebestod’, the very last chord seemed somehow to divide the wind and brass from the strings, as if they were operating on different planes. Extraordinary! Even the sudden cacophony of coughs that ran round the Hall in the dying moments of the ‘Prelude’, or the uncharacteristic occasions when chords were not quite together, couldn’t break the sublime mood.

Tristan MurailJoining Rattle for Turangalîla were Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Rattle’s long-time ondes martenot partner, Tristan Murail (curiously without a picture in the programme). Murrail has an unfussy way with his instrument, and in all but the final peroration (where the ondes’s stepped-upward phrases, for once, seemed subsumed beneath the orchestral onslaught) the eerie sound carried well. Aimard, without score, was as breathtakingly accurate as ever in the demanding solo part.

Rattle has grown into the work, from his early performances with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (within two years of taking up his position there he brought this work to the 1982 Proms and their later recording was released in 1987). His Berlin players were fabulously responsive to his continued love-affair with this piece. Perhaps not surprisingly, given Messiaen’s centenary, the work’s 60th-birthday (it was first performed in Boston under Leonard Bernstein in 1948) and the number of performances of it they are giving, this was a scrupulously prepared account, with each of the ten movements exquisitely detailed.

From the curious, almost single lines of the three movements entitled ‘Turangalîla’ (numbers 3, 7 & 9), to the tutti string and ondes martenot love-theme that repeats throughout the piece, Rattle was able to bring out the complexities and exotic sonorities of the score. Almost impossible to grapple at one hearing, there was no doubting the success of the performance, greeted with ecstasy.

Malcolm Hayes’s programme note (curiously refraining from any mention of birdsong) pointed out that Messiaen’s 1990 revision included a slower sixth movement (the central plateau of the work) and a steadier final one, but at about 77 minutes Rattle was consistent with his recording. That said, I was probably not the only one that wished I could luxuriate even longer in this spectacular occasion.

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