Berliner Philharmoniker/Rattle (2)

Violin Concerto No.1, Op.35
Symphony No.7 in E [Edition by Leopold Nowak]

Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 2 September, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This concert presented a conundrum. With so much music he conducts, and so well, to choose from, why should Simon Rattle alight on Bruckner – a composer for whom he clearly has little affinity for as yet. After all, not even the very greatest conductors do different composers with equal success and there is no dishonour in that. In the case of Bruckner, Bruno Walter once said that as a younger man he had little real empathy for Bruckner’s music and that only after a serious illness did the scales fall from his eyes and he finally understood it. One answer, maybe, is that Rattle is so in love with the sound that the Berlin Philharmonic produces, but the truth is that sound alone is not the main determining factor in the success or failure of a performance of Bruckner’s music.

Fortunately, in Szymanowski sound is paramount, at once flickering, iridescent and voluptuous. In this hot-house, highly-perfumed soundworld Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic thrive, bringing to it the ultimate in sophistication: the musical equivalent of a visit to the Orchid House at Kew Gardens. This is music that Rattle has long championed – he recorded the two violin concertos in Birmingham with Thomas Zehetmair – and on this occasion the excitement he generated communicated itself vividly.

The solo part is for the most part stratospheric with a hugely demanding cadenza, musically if not theatrically the work’s weakest moment, and Frank Peter Zimmermann played the work with total commitment and secure, sweet intonation. He does not have the largest tone but then neither, his recordings suggest, did Paul Kochánski, Szymanowski’s close friend and the violinist who was to have given the concerto’s first performance in St Petersburg had the political unrest leading up to the 1917 Revolution not put paid to that. There is an ecstatic quality to the solo part which some other soloists, notably Nikolaj Znaider, bring out more strongly, but where Zimmermann really scored was in that sense of complete unanimity of purpose between himself and the orchestra rarely encountered in concerto performances. The very ending with the violin slithering upwards and out of reach is akin to the Indian Rope Trick.

As an encore, Zimmermann played Bach (the Sarabande from the D minor Partita) wonderfully, with Rattle sitting in with the double basses to listen in rapt attention.

In the Bruckner symphony the actual playing was for the most part – a few lapses in the scherzo and finale aside – quite glorious. But the disappointment was acute. The main reason lay in Rattle’s perpetual micro-management. This was Bruckner that moved in half-bars, every detail relentlessly seized on and savoured, like an actor who feels the need to invest every single line, even the most banal, with the sort of emotional weight of Hamlet’s Soliloquy. Yet Bruckner’s music moves in much larger rhythmic groupings than Rattle allowed and – perish the thought – not every detail in the symphony is profound or of equal significance.

Continuity, melos (for want of a better word) and an underlying pulse were lacking as the outer movements, which constantly got bogged down in a thicket of detail; this made for a very long listen. There were compensations, the glorious dark-toned Adagio for one but even here the alternating ‘pastoral’ section was taken at such a funereal pace that it failed to provide the requisite contrast. Using Nowak’s edition meant that the questionable cymbal crash capped this movement’s climax; and here the player very nearly over-balanced in giving his all.

The bottom line is that Bruckner’s music does not need every bar to be spelled out and interpreted; it needs to be played directly and instinctively. At the symphony’s close Rattle held his hands aloft and there was a long silence, which is not always guaranteed at the Proms and very rare anywhere after a fortissimo. It says something for Rattle’s magnetism that it happened, but were we being manipulated even here?

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