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Schoenberg, Ravel, R Strauss: Magdalena Kozena (mezzo), Berlin Philharmonic, Sir Simon Rattle, Frankfurt, Alte Oper, 26.9.2005 (SM)



Schoenberg: Variations for Orchestra, op. 31 

Ravel: Sheherazade 

Strauss: Ein Heldenleben, op. 40 




"I've been coming here for 20 years and I've never experienced anything like this before," harrumphed a number of concert-goers on Monday evening in Frankfurt's not-so-venerable concert hall, the Alte Oper.  No, they weren't complaining about the performance of Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic or the skimpy belly-dancer costume of Sir Simon's wife, Magdalena Kozena.  What was irking the city's well-heeled bankers and their wives was that the start of the concert was delayed for technical reasons -- by almost an hour. (The Alte Oper, rather surprisingly, had not been expecting the concert to sell out and had decided to use an extra partitioning wall to reduce the size of the hall. But the demand for tickets at the evening box office was so great that the wall had to be taken out again and there was a technical hiccup during its removal.)

It wasn't that Frankfurters are such culture vultures that they couldn't wait to get their teeth into Schoenberg's first major 12-tone work for orchestra, or be bewitched by Ravel's dazzling tale of Arabian nights, or be bowled over by Strauss' testosterone-bluster of a self-portrait. No, let's get this straight. Music and culture in Germany's financial capital are a commodity, pleasant enough for an evening's diversion, perhaps even something to show off to visiting businessmen. But it has to be over by 10:00 pm please, so that you can catch the last tube home or perhaps go to dinner in a swish restaurant afterwards.   And the way things looked, we weren't going to get out before 11:00 pm at the earliest. No wonder people's noses were out of joint.   Never mind that it promised to be an intriguing evening – it was the Berliners' only other German concert outside their home Philharmonie; on the programme were three not always very palatable works; and it was the first joint appearance of Rattle and Kozena since the birth of their child in March.  Maybe I was imagining it, but tempers appeared a little frayed in the orchestra, too, as the players took their place on stage and even Sir Simon gave the audience an apologetic shrug when he took his introductory bow. However, any irritations quickly vanished during the opening few bars of Schoenberg's “Variations”.


Rattle's expert conducting and the Berliners' legendary laser-point technique made for 23 minutes of rare concentration even for an audience as conservative as Frankfurt's, meticulously laying bare the chamber-like sonorities that Schoenberg draws from his huge orchestra, every line clearly audible, with supple woodwinds and gleaming strings.By the time Magdalena Kozena took the stage, the audience's ire at the late start to the concert had evaporated.Part of that may have been due to Lady Rattle's daring costume -- a genie-like two-piece with glittering bustier and green chiffon harem pants, fully in keeping with the shimmering orientalism of Ravel's score. Not everyone could get away with exposing their midriff barely six months after having a baby. And Kozena did not always seem fully at ease under the audience's gaze, frequently seeking to cover up her navel with arms.   But her flawless, ethereal soprano -- I don't understand why she still calls herself a mezzo -- was mesmerizing in its beauty, capable of a myriad different shadings, almost husky lower down, bright and angelic up top.   Whether the audience up in the gods of the Alte Oper with its shoe-box acoustics could hear every word is doubtful. The first pianissimo cry of "Asie" in the opening song was barely audible in the ninth row of the stalls.   But thanks to the gossamer-like textures of Ravel's orchestration -- the flute solo (Andreas Blau) in the second song "La flute enchantee" was ravishing -- and Rattle's attentive conducting, Kozena was never swamped by the Berliners.

Like both Schoenberg and Ravel, Richard Strauss was a genial orchestrator who made virtuosic demands of his orchestras. Ein Heldenleben, for all its confident swagger (surely there is a touch of irony in Strauss’ self-agrandissement) showcases the composer's astonishing mastery of orchestral colours at the age of just 34.  And what better orchestra than the Berlin Philharmonic to show off that mastery, with its razor-sharp woodwinds, kidney-punch brass and swirling, heady strings.

In the solo violin part, Konzertmeister Guy Braunstein was every inch up to Strauss’ mercurial demands, switching from “hypocritically yearning” (heuchlerisch schmachtend) to impishly “loveable” (liebenswürdig) in the blink of an eye. And the second violins didn’t flinch when they were required to tune down their G-string to G-flat in the middle of the love idyll at the end of “Des Helden Gefährtin” and then back up later on.

At the end of the evening, the Berliners declined to play an encore, probably given the lateness of the hour. It would have been interesting to know whether they had prepared any, even if I’m not sure the audience, for all the tumultuous applause, would have stayed on for one. But, aside from the scandal of the one-hour delay, this concert of superlative music-making made for a memorable evening nevertheless.



Simon Morgan


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