Berliner Philharmoniker/Rattle (1)

Symphony No.25 in G minor, K183
Noesis [London premiere]
Debussy orch. Colin Matthews
Four Preludes from Book II – La danse de Puck; Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest; Feuilles mortes; Feux d’artifice
Symphony No.40 in G minor, K550

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 1 September, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Sir Simon Rattle’s and Berliner Philharmoniker’s appearances have now become a keenly-awaited, if not always artistically fulfilling, Proms fixture – but there can be little doubt that this showing was as interpretatively convincing as it was ingeniously programmed and impressively executed.

Framing the concert with Mozart’s two G minor symphonies was as distinctive a way as any to mark the composer’s 250th-birthday year. Admittedly this performance of the ‘little G minor’ suggested an interpretation in progress – Rattle’s amalgam of ‘authentic’ procedure and expressive license not always cohering stylistically, especially in an Andante where phrasing often verged on the precious and a Minuet whose incisiveness did not quite accord with its leisurely trio (to which decoration was added). Yet the outer movements had no lack of either rhythmic energy or expressive impact, underlining that Mozart was as adept in appropriating stylistic models in his (relative) youth as he was at transcending them in his maturity.

Interesting that Rattle should recently have been criticised for ‘playing safe’ over the choice of living composers in his Berlin programmes. Certainly no one could accuse the 46-year-old Hanspeter Kyburz of pandering to an audience’s passive conceptions of what music – classical or otherwise – is there ‘to do’. Nor can there be any doubt as to the virtuosity with which he handles his extensive forces in Noesis (2001). Its title (‘Cognition’) may be derived from a concept by the early-twentieth-century German philosopher Edmund Husserl, but this veritable ‘concerto for orchestra’ evinces a gripping immediacy over its three parts. It moves from an impulsive if pointedly non-cumulative first section,through a central span whose skeletal rhythmic gestures are filled out texturally before erupting in a stream of dislocated outbursts, then to a rondo-like alternation of toccata and chorale ideas whose mounting energy is curtailed by a coda as clinching expressively as it seems inconclusive formally. Kyburz’s flair for sonority and texture is as sure as is his sense of musical progress, and the Berliners responded with alacrity in what was an assured and committed performance. On this basis at least, the state of contemporary music in Berlin appears to be heading in a decidedly positive direction.

Following the interval came four of Debussy’s piano preludes in orchestrations by Colin Matthews – a project intended to encompass all twenty-four such pieces which, though commissioned by the Hallé Orchestra and Mark Elder, has been championed by Rattle from the outset. The gentle whimsy of ‘La danse de Puck’ sounds as if conceived directly for orchestra, and though the simmering unrest of ‘Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest’ and the scintillation of ‘Feux d’artifice’ lose some of their immediacy when realised – however skilfully – in orchestral terms, ‘Feuilles mortes’ takes on a succession of autumnal hues entirely in context. When as finely played as here, the completion of the task can only be keenly anticipated: ‘Debussy-Matthews’ perhaps even set to join ‘Elgar-Payne’ as a productive collaboration across eras.

And so to Mozart’s ‘great G minor’ symphony – in an account where the balance between ‘then’ and ‘now’, such as often eludes Rattle’s performances of the standard repertoire, was potently achieved. Above all, in an Andante whose questing harmonic language and insistent motivic gestures were as one in signalling the movement’s rapt intensity. Nor did the angularity of the Minuet conflict with the repose of its Trio; Rattle here ensuring an unbroken continuity of expression. If main themes in the outer movements could have been even more keenly inflected, this is not to imply a lack of dynamism or of Rattle’s conviction in making them cohere in themselves and as part of the symphonic whole. And, with orchestral balance as finely judged as can be expected when so inward a work is given in so expansive an acoustic, then this was as satisfying a performance as one is likely to encounter today.

The second-half repeat was not taken in the finale, or in the Andante for that matter, nor was there an encore – but given that the one is as redundant syntactically as the other is aesthetically, Rattle was vindicated on both counts. If he and the orchestra have indeed been going through a ‘rough patch’, it appears that the corner might now have been turned: at any rate, this is hardly a partnership running out of creative impetus.

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