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S & H Concert Review

Schoenberg & Bruckner: Dawn Upshaw (sop), Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle, RFH, 11th October 2002 (MB)


Schoenberg, String Quartet No.2 in F sharp minor, Op.10 (arranged for string orchestra)
Bruckner, Symphony No.9 in D minor


There was, of course, none of the fanfare which greeted Sir Simon Rattle’s debut concert as Music Director in Berlin on September 7th. This is London, afterall. But this sublime opening concert should dispel any suggestion that this new partnership is anything other than an inspired one with Rattle on more unfamiliar musical territory than many of us are used to. If his Schoenberg was luminous, his Bruckner was simply overwhelming.

Schoenberg’s great String Quartet No.2, with its dissolution of consonance and concision of form, makes an almost ideal companion work for Bruckner’s Ninth, the composer’s most inspired symphony (Bruckner is moving towards an emergent atonalism in the adagio of the Ninth whilst Schoenberg himself is on the brink of abandoning conventional diatonics altogether). The performance of the Quartet almost suggested otherwise so transfigured was the string tone: achingly lyrical violins (divided antiphonally) and sumptuous violas and ’cellos, which ensured that the tonality remained earthbound, had a genuinely hypnotic edge to the sound. How inspired of Rattle to place his double basses along the back of the stage (as he had done in Parsifal some years ago); the effect was astonishing as the rich, expressionist sound mimicked that of a traditionally seated quartet. This was chamber music playing on an epic, but intimate scale.

Just as impressive was the way that Rattle shaped the two soprano movements of the quartet – ‘Litanie’ and ‘Entrückung’. These two Stefan George poems inspired Schoenberg to some of his richest contrapuntal writing and Rattle gave the orchestration a capella-like imagism. When Dawn Upshaw sang in the fourth movement ‘Ich löse mich in Tönen, kreisend’ (I am dissolved in swirling sound’), the orchestra produced an expressive timbre which was so metaphorically played the effect was transcendental. And, just as Schoenberg suggested, the voice was the focus of the movement – Miss Upshaw’s melting tone heavenly beside the whispering breath of the orchestra.

Rattle has, to my knowledge, made only one commercial recording of a Bruckner symphony – the Seventh. Whilst that had very few memorable virtues, this performance of the Ninth was a magnificent achievement – and fully comparable with some of the greatest recordings of the work by conductors such as Celibidache, Wand and, notably, Furtwängler. In both outer movements Rattle was almost identical in timing to that conductor’s famous 1944 Berlin performance, but of even greater similarity is the same gut-wrenching power, the same intense sonority and the same marked deliberation of tempi which marks Furtwängler’s performance out as the seminal recording of this symphony.

Almost from the beginning, with the movement’s first theme emerging from tremolando strings, the power of the Berliners suggested this was going to be a performance of disquieting intensity. Moments such as the violins rising in octaves (and famously a terrifying ‘missed’ octave) beneath an overwhelming dissonance of brass were hair-raisingly done, as was the pizzicato string playing before the second subject amid a chatter of woodwind. I don’t think I have ever heard such dense pizzicato playing from the violins (and what miraculous cantabile) as Rattle coaxed a hollow, yet broad, sound from his players. When the glorious second subject appeared it did so on a wave of lush string tone almost deliberately evoked to calm us before an earthquake of faltering tonality which Rattle charged so overwhelmingly as to bring us to the edge of catastrophe. When the coda arrived it did so like a Tempest.

If Rattle’s opening movement was often stark, his handling of the scherzo was chilling. The only movement he took at an unusually broad tempo (although it in no way felt it), he succeeded in making much more of the macabre elements of Bruckner’s scoring than many conductors dare to. With his ten double basses stretched in an arc across the rear of the stage the basses were given a much more sinister edge than usual as they growled relentlessly against a backdrop of dissonance. With woodwind and brass slightly more acidic the element of chill was never far from our minds. This was bone-grinding playing.

In complete contrast, Rattle’s conducting of the adagio was gravely beautiful – from shimmering, divided violins to radiant violas and ‘cellos. What made the performance of this movement rise above the ordinary was the sheer anguish he coaxed from the orchestra. Even the subtlest string melodies had a painful forbearance (violins were especially ethereal and spectral in their tone), a solo oboe bleated like a wounded animal, and four Wagner horns evoked despair even though their golden tone was elegiacally hymnal. When the climax arrived – some twenty minutes into a performance of this movement, which had already explored the boundaries of radiance and glacialness – it was as towering as the moment itself. The anguished horns, trumpets, trombones and a tuba at fff proved earth shattering, almost as if we were being made to feel this music rather than just hear it. As it dissolved into the resolution of the coda a sense of spiritual calm appeared for the first time in the work – a moment as magical as it was evocative.

What gave this performance such special qualities is in part down to the conductor’s humility. Rattle, in one of the most selfless performances I can ever recall by him, charmed his orchestra into giving their souls to this symphony. The magnificent – faultless – playing, the result of meticulous preparation, suggested that what mattered was beyond the notes on the page. Just watching how these players interacted with each other, listened to each other and responded to their Music Director’s limpid gestures, goes some way towards explaining why this was such a phenomenally articulate and meaningful performance. Whatever else happened is the magic of music.

Hearing Rattle and this wonderful orchestra in Bruckner’s Ninth made me return to my colleague in Philadelphia, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, who reviewed a performance for Seen & Heard of Rattle conducting the symphony with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He wrote:

This was raging, furious, terrified and terrifying Bruckner. The amount of anger Rattle’s face and body communicated was simply astonishing…He drove the players through the piece mercilessly, breathlessly -- LITERALLY breathlessly, for the traditional Brucknerian pauses simply were not there. Rattle moved from section to section at a breakneck pace, imploring the strings, especially, in the Adagio, for more and more sound….The absence of Brucknerian breaths made Rattle’s decision to prolong the silence after the cataclysmic climax of the third movement all the more marked… In the face of such death-haunted rage, it was hard not to think of the events of six months before. How this approach will go over with the Brucknerian traditionalists in Berlin, I do not know…

Rattle’s greatness as a conductor is precisely this: an ability to charge his players with his own innate emotions, no matter how naked and raw they may be. In the Berliner Philharmoniker he has an orchestra willing to accept that and it is this which makes this partnership the most compelling in music today. This astounding concert, unforgettable for the intensity of its music making, is proof of it.

Marc Bridle

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