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S & H Prom Review

PROM 56: Brahms, Goebbels, Strauss Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle, Royal Albert Hall, 1st September, 2003 (MB)


If Simon Rattle has a gift as a conductor it is that he is rarely predictable. Whilst his Mozart and his Haydn (and to a certain extent his Beethoven) are informed by new thinking, his Brahms and his Bruckner are massively Teutonic scaling depths of sonority (with almost old fashioned portamento) that any conductor from the 1940s would readily identify with. In one sense his performance with the Berliner Philharmoniker of Brahms’ St Anthony Variations was exactly this – broad, portentous and bold – and yet the unpredictability came through the mellifluous way he treated the variations allowing each one to have a freedom of tunefulness that pitted the sometimes deliberate tempo against wonderful clarity of phrasing.

In the fourth variation, for example, taken correctly by Rattle in 3/8 time, it wasn’t just the introduction of the new melodies that mattered. It was the way he illustrated the counterpoint (not often evident in performances) that struck home. With the seventh variation it was the lushness of the Berliner strings that mattered with the classical polyphony bringing out a wealth of inner detail. With the eighth it was the brooding darkness of the playing that gave the variation its mysterious glow. The performance never once sounded obscure, although I can well accept less well-trained ears believing this to be the case.

Heiner Goebbels’ Aus einem Tagebuch and Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben share autobiography as their theme and yet it almost seems ironic to say that Goebbels’ is the more self-indulgent. Here we don’t have the intimacy of a Janacek diary, rather the laying out before us of a life that sounds as if it is in turmoil. The massive sonorities – and they are often deafeningly so – suggest his diary has been carved into stone with a drill piece, each of the nineteen movements fragmented by extraneous noises (overseen in this performance by the composer himself using a sampling keyboard). This is typical Goebbels – bringing past sounds into the present in newly defined pitches - and at 22 minutes in length just outstays its welcome.

Rattle has programmed Ein Heldenleben in Birmingham before, and this performance with the Berliners was not significantly different from the ones I have previously heard. Under Rattle this is a less bloated monster than we usually hear, although one did wish for greater power in the opening (which does after all recall the E flat major opening of the Eroica). Yet, he brings a surging power to ‘The Hero’ that is white hot with energy ("it seethed on leaving the mouth of the furnace", wrote Romain Rolland) and the playing was impeccably forceful. Nowadays Rattle seems to bring greater viciousness to ‘The Hero’s Adversaries’ and the Berlin woodwind were a seething, rasping group of adversaries spitting their notes out with shrill menace. Guy Braunstein’s beautifully tempered violin solo during ‘The Hero’s Companion’ was less languorous than I have heard for sometime, yet contrasted with the amorous advances from the orchestra on low horns and strings it was palpably more balanced, a reminder of the more coquettish traits of Strauss’ wife, the soprano Pauline de Ahna.

‘The Hero’s Battlefield’ was incandescent, at once brilliantly virtuosic in its playing but at the same time sublimely self confident in its ability to differentiate between the torrential string figuration and knife-sharp woodwind and brass textures. With Rattle’s clearest conducting of the evening given over to this movement it was hardly surprising that the music appeared to sound so transparent, so much like chamber music. The sensuousness that he lavished here pre-empted a glowing transfiguration in the final two sections where beautifully sustained pianissimo playing from the strings (and a riveting cor anglais solo from Dominilk Wollenweber) heralded music making of unusual beauty of tone. With the most sensuous music taken at a breathtakingly slow pace – as if to underline this orchestra’s miraculous dynamic range – it provoked a ravishing sound, marred only by principal horn Stefan Dohr’s single flat note of the evening.

A beautiful performance then, and one that showed that Rattle’s Berlin Phil is a very different creature from the one he inherited. At times, the playing had such depth one was reminded of Karajan’s earliest recordings with the orchestra, though with the humanity of the occasional rough edges Rattle’s new orchestra sometimes betrays. A magnificent instrument it remains, though under Rattle, I think, one of the more interesting ones to listen to.

Marc Bridle





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