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S & H International Concert Review

Adés & Mahler: Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle, Philharmonie, Berlin, 7th September 2002 (MB)

If there is any difference between how Berliners and Londoners see classical music it is in the formers’ passion. No city boasts so much, and sit in any café in the Charlottenberg or Mitte areas and you will find at least one person who knows something about what is on that night. In the case of its leading orchestra pride is natural and real. It is inconceivable, for example, that posters of any conductor would ever line a London street, yet on the short journey from Tempelhof to the Tiergarten, which borders on its south side the reconstructionist, Scharoun-designed Philharmonie (on the inappropriately named Herbert–von-Karajan Straße) countless posters saying ‘Welcome Sir Simon’ were as popular as those advertising mid-European commercialism. Suddenly, Rattle has become the cover boy for a revitalised cultural Berlin. Look at them under the failing light of a balmy Berlin evening and Rattle appeared to be wearing a halo on some. The buzz after the concert as people spilled out onto the streets was that the halo might not be long in coming, although how well some of the more conservative elements of Berlin’s musical elite will take to his radical (by Philharmonic standards) programming remains to be seen. There is promised Bruckner with Schoenberg and Goebells with Stravinsky in future concerts – as well as Turnage. How many of the glittering bejewelled ladies on display last night will still be there when Rattle does Blood on the Floor? It will determine whether Rattle, like his predecessor sometimes did, plays to less than sold out houses.

Of course, Rattle is no stranger to Berlin, having first conducted the orchestra in 1987, but this concert was his first as the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Music Director. It was typical Rattle – something new, something old – and expectations were feverishly high. In fact, I have rarely been in a concert hall where the atmosphere was palpably electric, so tensile. It is a sign of Rattle’s confidence in this orchestra – and perhaps in his audience - that he can programme music such as Asyla - a challenge for any orchestra, but especially one with so negligible a performance history of English music as the Berliners. Although by no means an ‘english’ work, Asyla is less intrinsically European in its tonality than some works the orchestra has played under Abbado (Stockhausen, for example). The performance was tensely played with not quite the freedom the work needs – but so transluscent was the Berliner’s idiomatic tone colouring it mattered little if there were minor problems with pitch and ensemble. Dynamically, the music had a hushed intensity when needed, but also a wild ferocity, which Rattle nurtured to even greater effect in his performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.

Problems of pitch were noticeable in the horns during the performance of the symphony – oddly, and, symmetrically, at the opening and close of the work. However, this should not detract from the standard of orchestral playing which was superlative, energised by Rattle’s dynamic baton control; and rarely did this performance seem anything other than an electrifying experience. Rattle perhaps takes the opening two movements at a broader tempo than is ideal, but he sees the symphony in a single 70-minute vision which culminates in a coda of fearsome abandon. There is a touch of drama about how Rattle frames these final bars, in part reminiscent of how Furtwängler used to end Beethoven’s Ninth. It is undoubtedly searing, verging on the hysterical.

The acoustics of the Philharmonie flatter this orchestra’s broad tone beautifully – and Rattle is technically adept at focussing the sound so the inner strands of orchestration grow preternaturally. It is noticeable, for example, how trenchant the percussion can sound in a Rattle performance, and here they sounded harder and more caustic than one usually experiences with this orchestra. The strings are luxuriant – especially the ‘cellos which excelled throughout the performance, and few orchestras seem able to give ffff the volcanic, earth-shattering terror which the Berliners do and yet keep it so controlled. Rattle seemed to make the orchestra produce blistering sounds which were given with incredible, yet economic, restrain.

If Rattle’s perception of the faster movements is towards one of dislocation, his view of the adagietto is its very antithesis. Fluid and restrained with a lighter string tone, it is given hypnotic beauty. His gestures are almost minimalist and yet there is a searing edginess to the plangency of tone, redolent of chamber music in its sculpted articulation. The contrasts between the storminess of the opening marches and the brassy perorations of the Finale were almost more unsettling because of the hymnal, reflective qualities he gave the adagietto.

As far as inaugural concerts go this was a triumph, the warmth of the ovation he received genuine, his pleasure with the orchestra one of real affection. His encore was a delicately focussed performance of Brahms’ F major Hungarian Dance almost designed to send us off in a state of transient dreaminess. EMI will release the Mahler symphony at the end of the month. As I walked down Budapester Straße the occasional Rattle poster was now bathed in streetlight. It would never happen in London, I thought.


Marc Bridle

Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker will perform Schoenberg, Bruckner, Haydn and Mahler at two concerts at the Royal Festival Hall in October. BBC 2 will televise Rattle’s inaugural concert on 21st September.

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