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Seen and Heard Prom Review


PROM 67: Schoenberg, Variations for Orchestra: Beethoven, Symphony no. 9, Berliner Philharmoniker, Soloists, City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus, Sir Simon Rattle, Royal Albert Hall, Sunday 5th September 2004 (ME)


These two works could hardly have been better chosen to display the prowess of what is unquestionably one of the world’s great orchestras, if not the greatest in this repertoire, and despite the absurd heat in the hall (absurd because in the absence of any properly functioning air conditioning – and that lack is ridiculous in itself – it would have helped if the doors and thick curtains could have been opened) the performance was accorded rapt attention and an ecstatic ovation.


Schoenberg’s ‘Variations’ was first performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1928, and its complex structure and the individuality of each piece frame instrumental episodes which are not only demanding in themselves but require a conductor with intense concentration and management of his forces: here Rattle commanded the individual sections with such ease that the work’s difficulty on the page seemed illusory, and we could appreciate not only the unexpected tenderness of some of the parts – most especially Variation IX, ‘Reminiscences,’ but also the sheer musical excellence of the individual players, particularly the solo trombone in V II and the unison horns in V III.


Those same horns seemed quite daringly exposed in the first movement of the Ninth, a situation typical of the whole performance: both conductor and players appeared to want to push themselves almost beyond the limits of possibility, with the paradoxical result that there were moments in that movement where the pace was a little slack, almost as if too much had been given and somehow it had to be lessened. However, this feeling vanished with a second movement of real energy and an Adagio of sublime beauty, with the strings and oboes in particular giving compelling evidence that this really is the best orchestra around. In the Finale, Rattle achieved the small miracle of scaling down the sound of the ‘celli and basses to such an extent that you really had to strain to hear that emergent D major melody, and the resultant contrast between the sections was profound: it was like hearing music coming from the depths, or as Eliot put it ‘Music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all / But you are the music, while the music lasts.’


The ‘Ode’ was blessed with a quartet of soloists which would be hard to better: John Relyea launched the Bass part with tremendous force yet found the right level of sensitivity for ‘Tochter aus Elysium’ and gave exactly enough emphasis to the crucial ‘Brüder.’ Timothy Robinson, standing in at short notice for Jonas Kaufmann, does not in theory have quite the vocal heft for the tenor part here: he seems to be one of those English lyric tenors who would much prefer to be heroic Wagnerians, so he did not quite fill the hall, but his ‘Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen’ was certainly dramatic enough, and his tone throughout was refined. Both soprano and mezzo soloists achieved the rare distinction of singing with absolute beauty and purity of tone, never once producing an ugly note, as well as giving real point to their words, with Christiane Oelze’s warm, sweet soprano the embodiment of ‘Alle Guten.’


The Berlin Philharmonic, their obviously much – loved Chief Conductor and a team of soloists you’d love to hear in a Bach Cantata or Passion: what more could an audience want?


Melanie Eskenazi


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