wed 22/11/2017

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Rattle, Barbican Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Rattle, Barbican Hall

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Rattle, Barbican Hall

String playing not of this world in Stravinsky and Mahler

Sir Simon Rattle drawing hyper-refined string playing from the Berlin Phil at the Barbican last nightMark Allan

Sir Simon Rattle's clever programming struck again last night, showing us that musical neoclassicism - for want of a better word, which would be something like neo-everything - didn't begin with Stravinsky, whose Apollo ballet is surely his most elevated set of gestures to the past. Tchaikovsky, the rococo twiddles of whose complete Nutcracker this team seems to have enjoyed so much on a recent recording, would probably take the palm, though Mahler, of all composers, will do, too. At least, his Fourth Symphony begins that way. And soon there was more music not of this world to match Stravinsky's, which I have to admit only the Berlin Philharmonic strings can really play like this.

The moments of secret rapture, usually contrasted with their thunderous opposite, just kept on coming. I did fret at first that the Karajan-sized string orchestra for Apollo, freighted by eight double-basses lined up centre-back, would pin the god's wings, dressing him up in exquisite tailoring when we wanted to see the gleam of a perfect six-pack (perhaps I'd have to close my eyes and think of Balanchine's ineffable choreography). But what Rattle may have sacrificed in muscle-tone and mobility he gained in a perfection that was not without its playfulness. Blues and ragtime broke the poised surface; Bach, Tchaikovsky and Delibes were allowed their turn in the well-tempered string of dances. Just when your eyes were ready to prick at the sheer elusive grace of the Pas de deux's cello refrain - who said Stravinsky couldn't write a good, tuneful phrase to call his own? - we were off into resonant leaps and bounds.

Apollo's apotheosis, with its quick fade into infinity, would connect with the end of the Mahler. Which begins with a classically-proportioned journey that already wants to break its bounds. No, the clash of sleigh-ride tempo and strings launching into their Haydn trot wasn't a mistake (there were a few smudges later on, but only perhaps because Rattle is becoming as volatile as Abbado in his old age). There was so much to smile at before the woodwind got rough in a feral development with a superbly well-judged climax (scary). The grotesquerie of Friend Death striking up his fiddle in the scherzo- Daishin Kashimoto as evocative as he had been in striking the sun-god's lyre - was offset by its dreamy context, inner string parts snapping unpredicatably from time to time out of the spell they'd cast. Chamber-musical interplay always sounds better, it seems, when you can see the increasingly younger players looking and listening to each other.

And what a change seems to have come over Rattle in his relationship with the orchestra. Maybe that Nutcracker really did loosen them all up, perhaps it got them to enjoy high-level play - or perhaps they've been taking note of what goes on in Lucerne with Abbado (some of the players go there in the summer). At any rate, this Mahler slow movement was the most natural I've heard from the partnership. Once again, I have to leave reservations behind and admit that no-one lights up the heavenly way from inside like the Berlin cellos. Mahler's agony of bitter experience came across as sharp and dissonant, the fairground variation just delicious in its slides and shrieks. Again, the big boys (and girls, though still not enough of them) are enjoying what they do.

The biggest surprise of all was to find Christine Schäfer, so down-in-the-mouth and shortwinded a finale singer for Jurowski and the LPO earlier this season, transformed for her redemptive role. This time I didn't mind her coming on in the blaze of light just before the end of the poco adagio - no queenly ballgown as before, only a modest number to accentuate the gamin quality - nor the musical breaths she took in what should have been the longer phrases (though I still think that the previous evening's soloist, young Anna Prohaska, could have dealt with those better). But she very much meant what she sang, and despite a few potentially dangerous moments of not-quite-togetherness, came to rest at one with the rocking strings of the final verse (oh, that clarinet entry  into the silence - another of the evening's truly unforgettable touches). Another of those stillnesses followed which London audiences seem all too ready to abet. And though I wasn't going to put myself out to hear the Mahler Third on Wednesday - while admitting that only Abbado does it better than Rattle's City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra recording - I'm desperate to hear it now. I repeat, along with the text of Mahler's celestial song: such music-making is not of this world.

Mahler's agony of bitter experience came across as sharp and dissonant, the fairground variation just delicious in its slides and shrieks

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The concert master was Daishin Kashimoto, with fellow concert master Guy Braunstein as his deskmate. Daniel Stabrawa has yet to appear in this series of concerts.

I know we can't all like the same things but I left the Barbican in a bit of a mood last night and I am now setting up a Society for the Protection of Slow Movements - SPSM - with a particular chapter for Mahler! OK, the orchestra are supreme musicians and the string tone exceptional but why, oh why must we have these drawn out adagios that lose all forward impulse. Sir S also seemed to forget that 'Apollo' was written to dance to,most current ballet companies would find his tempi unacceptable, the piece ran for nearly five minutes longer than the last time I saw it performed and that's quite a lot for a 30 minutes (at most) piece of music.

Was it really drawn out, Kevin? I didn't time it, unlike the gentleman next to me (who may just have been looking at his watch), but I thought that was a genuine poco adagio pace to start with, at least - and then I went with it, which hasn't always been the case with Rattle's Mahler. It even encouraged me to go hear the Third, when I've always been a little nervous about this, of all conductors, not being the one to move it forward. I think there's an argument to be made, though, for a concert Apollo like that, though at first I shared your reservations and then lost them. Conductors with long-term pit experience like Rozhdestvensky like being liberated from dancers so they can bring out different things in the score. And thank you, James, for filling in the gap. I'm about to amend, as there's no point in people having to read the footnote. Impressive that two leaders could share a desk like that - I loved the way Braunstein kept leaning in to his colleague.

Can't give you a time on the Mahler David, not a movement timer generally but, for me, it felt really slow, perhaps I was just not in the mood. I have listened to the Tilson-Thomas live recording today and, according to the packaging, he takes 25 minutes over the third movement but it just felt like it was right and didn't drag for me at all so ...

David, I didn't ignore your remark about conductors being released from the stage' but I wanted to do some listening first. I have both of Rozhdestvensky's complete Prokofiev scores on disc and they are amazing but after spending over 15 years at the ROH, in my professional life, I am sure the Royal Ballet's dancers would have had no difficulty performing to them at all. Previn's Tchaikovsky, Boulez's and Jarvi's Stravinsky and lots of Mackerras's and Bonynge's recordings of ballet music all convince me my respose to Rattle's Apollo on Monday was the right one, try listening to Marriner's recording of it on Decca and you may see what I mean.

But Previn's Nutcracker is very slow and lush indeed (I like it, though it's not my favourite). As for Bonynge... But surely there's no one 'right' way to do Apollo? I love the opposite extreme to Rattle's, Bashmet's with his Moscow Soloists, and was ready to say that it took flight where Monday's performance didn't...and then other things came along to make me think again. And I speak as one who found fault with the same team's first Prom last year. Only last night I was reminded of one famous composer saying he liked performances which thought of things he hadn't...though I don't know what Stravinsky would have said. But then he contradicted himself all the time anyway.

Sorry if I gave the impression I thought there was a 'right' way to do anything, that's what freedom of interpretion is all about - I know people who won't even listen to some Klemperer.What I thought was wrong was the effect Rattle's performance had on me, which was to make me bored by a score I actually love then hemade things even worse (for me) with the interminable poca adagio in the symphony. I was drawn in by it, it just made me sit there thinking, 'OK so SR can make the orchestra play it this slowly and still make a beautiful noise but all he's doing is drawing attention to the fact'. You'll probably explode at the idea but I'll stick to Abbado & Haitink (as long as I can) in future. Regards and I'll shut up now.

Sorry typo there, should read more carefully. I was, of course, NOT drawn in by it ...

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