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S & H International Concert Review

Bartók: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Ligeti: Violin Concerto, Beethoven: Symphony No. 6, "Pastoral", Tasmin Little, Violin, Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle, Music Director and Conductor, Carnegie Hall, New York City, November 12, 2003 (BH)

Sometimes unexpected instruments are given unexpectedly exalted moments, such as last night in György Ligeti’s Violin Concerto, dazzlingly executed by Tasmin Little, with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic in coolly beautiful form. As some of the musicians put down their flutes, piccolos, and oboes, suddenly a shrill chorus of ocarinas leaped up, only adding to the otherworldliness of Ligeti’s astonishing timbres. Little, who looked sensational in a sleek, shimmering, dare I say, Ligeti-esque dress in green and magenta, brought down the house with her confident, lyrical and entirely imaginative reading.

By turns brittle, mournful, solemn, and playful, the piece has unusually extreme dynamics ranging from pppppp to a whopping ffffffff (for the xylophone). Further, the composer asks the performer to write his or her own cadenza that appears at the end. (The one created by Saschko Gawriloff, the work’s original performer, is supplied in the score.) In this instance, Little chose to duplicate the sound of the ocarinas and other textural elements, and resurrected fragments from each of the work’s previous sections. Her instincts only confirmed her triumph, as did the ovations at the end, and further, it is not often that a packed Carnegie Hall is so effusive for a relatively recent piece (it was completed in 1990, and revised in 1992.)

On an unusual technical note, instead of a conventional paper score, Little used a computer screen, designed by her husband for her London Proms appearance, that electronically scrolled through the music. Using two small footpads taped to Carnegie’s stage, she was able to tap her foot slightly to advance to the next passage. (Interesting how just adding a bit of advanced technology can increase the temperature of the evening.)

The Bartok masterpiece that began the evening was also terrific, with the opening at a haunting whisper, and biting renderings of the strident, clashing chords in the faster movements. I would have felt perfectly satisfied after this performance alone. Here and all night, the Berlin players seemed prepared for anything. As the cheering broke out as the piece ended, Rattle strode to the back of the orchestra to congratulate the orchestra’s keyboard player and percussion players.

A confession: I am not in the camp of those who abide by conventional wisdom that the Berlin orchestra is "the best in the world," a comment overheard several times during the evening. Certainly they are one of them, but having just heard the Los Angeles Philharmonic play an almost shockingly immaculate Mahler Second Symphony, not to mention a recent and blazing Mahler Fifth by Maazel and the New York Philharmonic, there is plenty of virtuosity to go around. Yes, the Berlin ensemble still has a distinctive sound, but then so do many other great orchestras in Cleveland, Amsterdam, London, Philadelphia, Vienna, and elsewhere. Any of them, on a particular night, can sound like the best group on the planet, with the right combination of conductor, repertoire, and all the zillions of little unquantifiable things like weather, emotions, and what everyone onstage ate before the performance. But back to Berlin: what was remarkable last night was that all three pieces were not only beautifully executed, but played with a distinct character, as if imagined by three entirely different ensembles. This is indeed one criterion of a great orchestra.

I must quit saying to friends that "I don’t really care for the Beethoven Sixth." True, when Claudio Abbado brought it here in the fall of 2001, I was deeply disappointed because his planned Mahler Seventh was scrapped after September 11, presumably because the Mahler was deemed too edgy and emotionally uncomfortable. For the record, I disagree; the fierce, complex, ambiguous, and ultimately elevating Seventh would have been a transcendent experience for those of us in the city at that time. And further, having heard Abbado’s recording of the piece done during the same year, we were cheated out of a potentially spectacular concert. In any case, the program was changed to Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth symphonies, and I had to admit that the evening was memorable.

But it seems unimaginable that any curmudgeon could resist the magnificent playing and insightful phrasing that Rattle offered last night. The Berlin players could probably perform this in their sleep, but there was nothing perfunctory in this reading. I can’t imagine anyone painting the rippling brook better than what I heard from the orchestra’s woodwind section, and the storm sequence was positively explosive. At the end, a woman next to me said, "Have you ever heard anything this sublime?" Of course I had, but at the moment, only Beethoven seemed to matter.

Bruce Hodges



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