wed 22/11/2017

Sibelius Cycle 3, Berliner Philharmoniker, Rattle, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Sibelius Cycle 3, Berliner Philharmoniker, Rattle, Barbican

Sibelius Cycle 3, Berliner Philharmoniker, Rattle, Barbican

Rough and ready, ultimately magnificent, the conclusion to a series worthy of the hype

Sir Simon Rattle urges on the Berlin Philharmonic in the conclusion of their Sibelius cycle at the BarbicanMark Allan for the Barbican

The Seventh Symphony was by some way the most scrappy and inaccurate of the performances in the Sibelius cycle given at the Barbican by, it must be said again, the world’s best orchestra. The oboes crunched a chord that fairly made you wince. A few bars later, the famous strings were all over the place. During that scherzo section, Sir Simon Rattle was willing the Berlin Philharmonic to move like The World’s Strongest Man with the bit between his teeth for a ten-ton truck.

They did shift themselves, eventually, into an heroic drive towards the still-debated closure – or is it cliff-edge? – of a symphony that on some days, in some hands, can sound like The End (of Sibelius, of symphonies). Passing without pause into the cycle’s final instalment, Rattle had presented the Sixth as posing questions that could only be answered by the Seventh, and yet the performance itself proved satisfyingly irresolute. From a puzzling, undemonstrative first appearance, the trombone melody which anchors the Seventh took on weightier baggage for its subversive second and climactic third iterations, the while beset and intensified by rough and sometimes ragged clamour largely out of character with the previous six performances.

Not quite: starting an evening with the Fifth is a stiff challenge even for the Berlin Philharmonic, to which the principal trumpet rose fitfully in his proclamation of the symphony’s opening theme. London audiences have heard Osmo Vanska and Esa-Pekka Salonen achieve a seamless accelerando through the entire movement, a technical feat and a musical wonder in itself, but still more audacious was Rattle’s tenacious grip on the opening Molto moderato until it burst into what initially seemed an ambitious Allegro. That got faster, and bar by bar faster, and surely it was impossible to go faster still, until they did. Almost every man and woman on stage looked around to give each other an eyeballed high-five, as if to say, we did it. They did it in Berlin last week too, but this was different.

Between them Rattle and the Berliners have discovered Sibelius anewSuch urgency of purpose had pulled music, musicians and listeners through all three days, and carried on into an Andante with plenty of the composer’s prescribed "mosso" – movement again, or energy, or both. On another day, with the Fifth placed after rather than before an interval, the finale could be more steadily paced, but in the context of the cycle it was easy to overlook the loss of coordination at Rattle’s characteristically abrupt descent to the first theme’s reprise, as quietly as you can imagine, and then much quieter than that, because its kinship with the parallel moment in the Fourth Symphony was so usefully elucidated. In the gathering up of the grand swan theme, passion carried all before it: not a mark of Rattle’s recent London appearances, but it was the defining quality of a magnificent Seven, worthy of the bald head and staring blue eyes of Yul Brynner, and indeed of the man Sibelius.

After the interval the page was turned and the Sixth proceeded like the next chapter of one big book, by no means suspended in some Polar or Elysian space but fully alive with strange energy. The cascading string figures of the first movement’s development slipped away like water through fingers, before some fearful groaning and grinding from the basses in its coda. Observing much more the Moderato than the Allegretto of the second movement’s marking, Rattle brought to mind William Mann’s phrase, "a football dipped in machine oil", and so this Sixth was by no means as "gently Olympian" as Mann would paradoxically have it. Indeed there was something awfully sinister about the third movement’s mechanical march for a symphony completed in 1923, of which the composer could still remark 20 years later, in his cups, that "rage and passion are utterly essential in it". No question here. The finale’s frenzied but harmonically fruitless string figuration threw us forward to Sibelius's oblique last utterance with incidental music to The Tempest: Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.

During the last three days, the nice man from Warner Classics has done good business in the stalls foyer with an adventitiously repackaged release of Rattle’s old Sibelius cycle on EMI with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, complete with big hair and day-glo jumper (Rattle, not the nice man). Those records still have much to recommend them, but this is not that orchestra. This is not that Rattle. It certainly isn’t that Sibelius. As Edward Seckerson observed about an extraordinary reinvention of the Second Symphony, between them Rattle and the Berliners have discovered Sibelius anew. It turns out he’s no less Romantic than before, even more impassioned, symphonically shed of nationalism, vital and here with us.

Almost every man and woman on stage looked around to give each other an eyeballed high-five, as if to say, we did it

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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