Prom 56 – Berlin Diary

Variations on the St Anthony Chorale, Op.56a
Aus einem Tagebuch [UK premiere]
Ein Heldenleben, Op.40

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 1 September, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

For his second Prom with the now Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle again chose to enclose a contemporary piece within two acknowledged classics. This time, those classics went back to the 19th-century with music by Brahms and Strauss with which this orchestra has long been associated.

Memory recalls that Rattle programmed Brahms’s ’Haydn’ Variations at his first concert on being appointed Principal Conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra some 23 years ago, so his association with it is longstanding. It’s also a piece which brings out the mellifluous timbres of the BPO’s woodwind and lower strings in full measure, resulting in a performance of long-breathed, easeful demeanour. That said, Rattle’s concern for continuity at the expense of characterising individual variations – and the contrasts between them are at least as significant as the follow-through of key relationships – made for an often tepid affair; the enervating feel of the finale typical of the performance as a whole.

Rattle’s first season in Berlin has seen him introduce a heartening amount of new and recent works into the orchestra’s repertoire. One of the most significant German composers of the middle generation, Heiner Goebbels, is also among the most thought provoking, as proved by Aus einem Tagebuch – premiered by Rattle and the orchestra in March. The piece is a diary pervaded by ’scenic impulses’ that take the form of ’found’ sounds assembled from those created for earlier works. These are relayed via a sampler keyboard which functions as an obbligato soloist, around which the orchestra (strings represented only by double basses) builds an obliquely cumulative discourse in 19 continuous sections. The result has a quirkily humorous feel, redolent of a latter-day Hanns Eisler (though British listeners might sense an affinity to Malcolm Arnold at his most sardonic), as Goebbels evokes not so much the persistence of memory as the sheer inescapability of it.

After the interval, a recent Rattle speciality – Ein Heldenleben. Those who heard the BPO with Herbert von Karajan in this work (not least a performance of fearsome assurance and impact at the South Bank in 1985) will have noted – but not been surprised by – the lightness of articulation during the ’Hero’ and ’Battle’ sections. This was above all an account that played down egoist certainties in favour of humanist aspirations. The ’Critics’ were despatched with insinuating guile, and concertmaster Daniel Stabrawa characterised the ’Companion’ with an unflashy allure such as led naturally into the archetypal Straussian love-scene. Rattle traversed the web of self-quotations with which Strauss suffuses the ’Works’ with calm intensity, and brought almost Schoenbergian angst to the music presaging the ’Retreat’ – the Hero finding fulfilment in perhaps the composer’s most expressive leave-taking. The clinching recall of the main motif left no false sense of triumph in its wake, though Rattle might have considered the original fade-out on solo violin and strings (as favoured by Metzmacher and Sawallisch) as even more appropriate to his reading of the piece.

No encore this evening. Perhaps Rattle was disconcerted by a half-hearted ’boo’ at the end of the Strauss. More likely, he thought the ending of that piece worth keeping in mind – rounding off an equivocally absorbing first visit with his new orchestra to the Proms.

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

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