Prom 55 – Berlin Rite

Music for strings, percussion and celesta
Violin Concerto
The Rite of Spring

Tasmin Little (violin)

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 31 August, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

In what was always going to be one of the musical events of 2003, Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic presented a typically astute programme, one that also managed to look more audacious than it was. Sir Simon, who played the piano part in a National Youth Orchestra Prom way back when, intended to record the Bartók with the Berliners shortly after Karajan’s death, only conditions were not right. The Stravinsky, long a party piece for him in Birmingham, has quickly assumed totemic status in Berlin too; it was recently the centrepiece of an outreach dance performance staged in an abandoned bus depot. Even the Ligeti is not exactly new for him or for us: Tasmin Little joined him for a memorable performance in the “Towards the Millennium” concert series and a Salzburg date was arranged this year. As for the encore, that was tried and tested as well. A wonderfully poised Satie Gymnopédie, as orchestrated Debussy, is what they have offered us before – and the winds seemed less tired last time.

None of which is to minimise the impact of a concert that, unlike several others this year, drew a full house, and deservedly so.Where Claudio Abbado’s Music for strings, percussion and celesta impressed Prommers last year with its elegant surfaces and exquisitely matched entries, Rattle favoured a less settled approach. The famously big sound of the massed strings impressed without quite ’fitting in’, but then it was not easy to concentrate what with fainting Promenaders being escorted out, distracting blue lights dotted round the place and the Berlin horn section warming up in what sounded like a nearby corridor.

The RAH can play strange tricks and things seemed altogether clearer in the Ligeti despite the small and eccentric forces favoured by the composer. This is a bona fide modern classic, five movements of dazzling, sometimes torrential invention that about five violinists actually play. Tasmin Little at least is dedicated to the task and for this Prom she not only sported an exquisite flashing gown of sky blue and pink but also unveiled a computerised music stand across which she scrolled the music page by page, controlling the onward rush of notation through the use of a foot pad.

It’s a neat solution to the page-turning problems of the hardest concerto ever written, but, make no mistake, she gets behind the notes too. Technical fluidity alone cannot account for the emotive force of this reading, and having it placed after the Bartók provided a useful stylistic jumping off point for initiated and uninitiated alike. Even in the ambient vastness of the RAH, Ligeti’s soundworld beguiled. Some details went puddingy in the first movement, but the witty pay-off worked very well indeed, and Little launched the second with extraordinary eloquence, for all the scepticism of the massed ocarinas. She also contributed her own cadenza to the finale.

The main event was still to come and mightily impressive it proved. The Rite of Spring has always been an ideal vehicle for this conductor to show off his strengths – the insistent sharpness of detail, the bursts of aggression turning to adrenaline-pumping joy, the dynamic extremes – with no obvious weaknesses allowed to surface. Did Prommers find the slow tempo of the concluding ’Sacrificial Dance’ problematic? Not many I would guess, given the splenetic zeal with which the players went about their task. So far as I can recall, Rattle has always done it this way. Playing The Rite faster, louder and with merely mechanical precision does not interest him. That said, no one takes the ’Dance of the Earth’ that concludes Part One at a more incendiary pace – thrilling stuff!

Throughout this performance, which had to be restarted when an insistent mobile phone broke the spell of the opening high bassoon solo, the playing was of the highest order with the woodwind contribution particularly outstanding. The ’Introduction’ to Part Two, so often a musical disappointment, was spellbinding here with wonderfully delicate work from the two solo muted trumpets.

I should perhaps add that the pale blue lighting was supplemented by burnt umber during the Stravinsky and a localised echo effect meant that I heard most of the low brass again from an imaginary position behind my right ear. You can catch a (hopefully better balanced) televised relay of this Prom on BBC2 on Saturday 20 September.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Tuesday 2 September at 2.00 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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