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Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Rattle, Queen Elizabeth Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Rattle, Queen Elizabeth Hall

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Rattle, Queen Elizabeth Hall

Chamber evening saved by the late entry of the great Sir Simon

Even the Berlin Phil needs a conductor: Sir Simon Rattle rehearsing with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra yesterday

Anything anyone else can do, we can do better, seemed the mantra last night. It's probably a bit churlish to accuse the finest orchestra in the world of arrogance - surely that's their job? But the first night of the Berlin Philharmonic's four-day stay in London (yesterday, the Queen Elizabeth Hall, tonight and tomorrow, the Barbican), in which three of the four pieces required conductorless chamber ensembles, did seem decidedly show-offy. Can these very fine orchestral members really rattle off a quartet as well as a symphony? Not without Simon Rattle, they can't.

That's not to say that the first three maestro-free works were anything but very pleasant: full of musicianship, elegance and fluency. All three began with the trademark Berlin Phil insouciance, in which the performers appeared to have forgotten that they were no longer tucked away in a larger mass, and instead fiddled with their instruments or cast little in-joke faces across to their two or three other partners until their entries came.

When swaggering away as a mob in repertoire that they have played spectacularly a million times, this loosey-goosey attitude is mostly fun to watch. When required to build up Pinteresque tension from a tiny number as last night, it's more distracting. When loosey-goosiness also begins to seep into the listening experience, it's very unfun. It didn't affect their accuracy but it did affect their ability to be anything more than polite. The lid was mostly firmly shut on the emotional stewing of Schubert's Quartettsatz. Details were gentrified, melodies were passed around like a tray of vol-au-vents and an unruffled, sweetly old-fashioned architecture shielded them and us from any nasty rains or winds.

Ultimately, of course, they also lacked the very specific string quartet rapport - very different from that of the orchestra - that professional foursomes develop over decades. Schoenberg's rebellious Second String Quartet for soprano and strings, painted in colours that could beat the pants off Der Blaue Reiter, and whose atonality had 1908 audience members running from the aisles in disgust, suffered most from this. The work was denuded of all its risk as a result of the consummately lyrical feel of first violinist Guy Braunstein and the solid but colourless soprano Anna Prohaska, who seemed to rush in the winds not of another planet - as required by the Stefan George text - but of a country garden. The Scherzo second movement was better, flirting with a dance of death - a requiem to tonality perhaps? - yet it still came across as dreamy rather than nightmarish.

The start of the second half saw them finally unleash some unchecked passion in Mahler's Quartet Movement in A minor for piano and strings, a rarely heard piece of juvenilia. The work's a guilty pleasure. It doesn't take much to get the best out of it and its fruits - thin in nutrients, rich in demerara - offer intense but very ephemeral bursts of pleasure.

If you ever wondered what the point of a conductor was, last night's concert offered a model answer

In a highbrow striptease, more and more orchestra was unveiled over the course of the evening. Horns (including our favourite Sarah Willis), winds, double bass and the conductor, Sir Simon Rattle, came out for the final work, Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No 1, Op 9, (1906). It can't have been a coincidence that this moment heralded a serious hotting-up of the evening. If you ever wondered what the point of a conductor was - and boy, have we have all pondered that thought at times - last night's concert offered a model answer. To shape, to balance and to propel. And no one shapes, balances or propels the modernist repertoire more brilliantly than Rattle. He understands the modernist mind - its analytical desires as much as its romantic residue - better than any.

In Rattle's batonless hands Schoenberg's atonal-ish chamber symphony gripped, where the rest of the programme had merely charmed. Rhythmic and harmonic revolts finally began to be properly exploited. Schoenberg's motifs finally began to betray their gymnastic flexibility. There was no ignoring the influence of the past. Mahler reared his head several times but then so did a Classical and Baroque energy. As if turning into a Brandenburg Concerto, a gang of ideas re-emerge in an infectious swarm in the finale, rising and falling speedily amid horn fanfares, offering a riotously uplifting conclusion. The evening had been transformed. Even the Berlin Phil needs a conductor.

Watch an excerpt of Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra performing the orchestral version of Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No 1, Op 9

 
 

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