Berlin Philharmonic under Rattle at Carnegie Hall, October 2014 — The Russians win.
Sir Simon Rattle, Music Director and Conductor
Thursday, October 2, 2014, 8 pm
Rachmaninoff – Symphonic Dances
Stravinsky – The Firebird (complete)
Sunday, October 5, 2014,| 8 pm
Schumann – Symphony No. 1, “Spring”
Symphony No. 2
Monday, October 6, 2014 | 8 pm
Schumann – Symphony No. 4 (original version, 1841)
Georg Friedrich Haas – dark dreams (US Premiere, commissioned by Carnegie Hall and Berliner Philharmoniker
Schumann – Symphony No. 3, “Rhenish”
The periodic visits of the Berlin Philharmonic are events most New York music lovers look forward to with keen anticipation, not least myself. I’d even have gone to the Carnegie Hall Opening Night Gala, if that were their only concert in the City this season, to hear the Bruch Violin Concerto and Anne-Sophie Mutter once more, but fortunately that was not necessary. The following evening they played the Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances, one of his works I particularly admire and enjoy, and the complete Firebird, only excerpted in the gala program, and that second program offered more. In fact they played four concerts at Carnegie and one at the Park Avenue Armory, a very earnest one, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, complete with costumes and staging by Peter Sellars. The other two programs at Carnegie Hall consisted of a traversal of the Schumann symphonies, with a recently co-commissioned work by the estimable Austrian composer, Georg Friedrich Haas. The Schumann symphonies have been receiving a lot of attention from the BPO’s publicity department, as luxury sets of CD’s and vinyl recordings, as well as 24-bit downloads, have been chosen to launch their new Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings label.
As splendid as the Haas perfomance was, the Russian program offered the most congenial material to display the venerable orchestra’s current state under Sir Simon Rattle. His flare for big, complex, colorful works built his reputation, and his affinity for such blockbusters has only grown. The orchestral sound is more sumptuous than ever, and the famed chops and musicality of their principle players are more amazing than ever. These qualities are so outstanding that they are worth coming to hear for their own sake, and that was certainly true of the Schumann concerts, and Sir Simon and the orchestra offered something more for the moribund Rachmaninoff and the duffer Stravinsky. For that matter, only the very greatest orchestra could realize the complexities of Haas’ magnificent excursion into horror as beautifully as they did on Monday evening, so in that case I can say that the musicians served a major living composer most honorably.
Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances was his final work. He died three years later. It is at the least a mature example of his work. Regard for the Symphonic Dances has grown in recent years, and I can see why. The three elaborate dance movements almost constitute a symphony, and the structure and sophistication in thematic development are certainly worthy of Rachmaninoff’s second and third efforts in the genre. The Berliners have a unique ability to produce their most opulent sound and still maintain a good deal of clarity in the textures, especially in richly orchestrated works. As the ensuing works will show, Sir Simon doesn’t always want to encourage them in that direction, but in this case he did. He showed an affectionate enthusiasm for the inner details of Rachmaninoff’s marvellous writing, and he displayed them like Fabergé eggs against the luxuriant tapestry of sound. Sir Simon also has an affinity for projecting the emotional content of a particular tune or section, and he did a most wonderful job of conveying the playfulness of the composer’s treatment of the main theme of the first dance. He also builds up codas and final cadences with power and force, and the conclusion of the last movement was a case in point. I can’t remember a better performance of the Symphonic Dances.
The complete Firebird ballet which followed was fluent and vivid as narrative and as luxurious as anyone could imagine sound. Here Sir Simon seemed to want to go in a different direction by creating more of a blend in the textures. Many familiar orchestral details were blanketed by the tutti, but they were there nonetheless. This was by no means ineffective, and I saw no problem in appreciating some favorite episodes from afar and under a veil. However, I still vividly remember Esa-Pekka Salonen’s detailed reading of the Firebird with the Boston Symphony a few years ago. (In fact he’s conducting it with the New York Philharmonic next week (Oct. 16-18). Not to be missed!) Salonen seemed to be on the track of the young Stravinsky’s thought-processes as he wove out his narrative fabric of sumptuous tableaux. This approach was more intellectually rewarding, and I did get more out of it, much more, but Rattle’s was very enjoyable, and I would in fact sum up the BPO’s Russian evening as pretty much pure pleasure, mostly sensual, but of a deeper sort. There’s nothing really wrong with that.
Schumann’s symphonies proved an ideal vehicle for the Berlin sound in mid-nineteenth century German scores—rather closer to home than St. Petersburg or Beverly Hills, where Rachmaninoff spent his last years, although the Dresdner Staatskapelle and Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra have a closer association with this quintessentially Saxon composer. Strings, woodwinds, and brass were all resplendent. There were breathtaking moments at the beginning of slow movements—mostly not-so-slow movements—and trios. Yet most of these displays seemed to distract one from the music rather than to elucidate Schumann’s writing or to enhance its expression. The symphonies were beautifully played, although not always cleanly in fast running figures, often set at breakneck speeds by Rattle, but he seemed somehow to miss the essential qualities of each one of the symphonies. His tempos were both a cause and symptom of the problem. In every movement he managed to choose a tempo that was much to slightly faster than usual, and even when it was slight, it was enough to scant breathing room around the phrases, melodies, and transitions. At certain, clearly premeditated places, he allowed considerable flexibility of tempo, but this didn’t compensate for the general lack of space around the notes—not a good policy, with the resonant style of Berlin’s playing. The rests are as important in Schumann’s symphonies as they are in his solo piano works or songs—crucial, even, since the symphonies, while mostly upbeat in character, exuberant in places, triumphant in others, acquired their unique character from Schumann’s mental lability. He was given to mood swings, even before his syphilis had advanced very far, and this haunts his more intimate music quite palpably. If the symphonies incline towards sunniness, it is contained in a succession of expressions, some phrasal, some longer, which often come in fits, isolated by brief rests or pauses, which don’t quite break up the flow beyond a subtle level, but they give the listener the impression of instability and hesitation, as if the music were being invented in short bursts of creative good feelings. No wonder Mahler, who worked this hesitation, starting and stalling, systematically into his Fifth Symphony (which might well be his hommage to Schumann), as if his musical language had to be invented as he wrote the symphony, particularly loved Schumann’s symphonies—enough to write his own arrangement of the scores (available in outstanding recordings by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Riccardo Chailly). By adopting such rapid basic tempos, Rattle obliterates this neurotic fitfulness and smoothes both the inner voices and the rests to the point that Schumann’s symphonies acquire a relentless quality like motivational background music, composed expressly for fitness classes or sales training. Rattle’s performances seemed more like advertisements for the symphonies than actual performances of them.
The experience of having to sit through these performances was for me alternately frustrating and annoying, even in some of the most beautiful passages. At a few moments I felt like walking out, but I didn’t. On the other hand there were rewarding moments, but when I was happily beginning to think that things were beginning to work out, as in the second and third movements of the Second, Rattle spoiled it with one of his rushes in the fourth. Creating a fireworks display of excitement in the finale through speed seemed his highest priority, but he dispersed the tension and anticipation by beginning his sprint from an already fast tempo. These vices were everywhere and there seems to be little point in going into individual works or movements, although, apart from those movements in the Second, I thought the Fourth, played in the 1841 version rather than the more familiar 1853 revision (rescored for an 168 piece festival orchestra!), was a bit more successful than the others. He exaggerated some of Schumann’s strange wind passages in this, which sounded very much like mistakes, to make sure we savored the oddity of this early version. I agree with Rattle about its unique qualities, but John Eliot Gardiner in his recording is much more successful. Period instruments serve Schumann well, even better than Mendelssohn.
After all this high cultural cheerleading, what a relief it was to immerse oneself for a half hour in Georg Friedrich Haas’ nightmare world, dark dreams. Using spectral components—extended fields of tonal color and dissonant harmony created out of microtones—Haas goes through most if not all the repertory of musical gestures or effects employed since Purcell’s time or before to create feelings of dread and terror in listeners. It could well be not more than an exercise—and this did cross my mind—but the title informs us that it is a dream—a coalescence of the fear and dread many things in contemporary life arouse in us, from the news to accidentally finding oneself in a bad neighborhood. This dream is in fact exquisitely organized and constructed, and there can be no doubt that Haas is a much more skilled composer than Schumann was. His work piqued my awareness of the awkwardnesses of Schumann’s writing—not always to its detriment. And there was the gorgeous playing of the Berlin principals, including a breathtakingly beautiful line on the double bass to boot!
What ups and downs over the course of these evenings! At moments I couldn’t wait to get away from the slick Schumann, but the Russians and Haas made it all worthwhile. When the Berliners walked out on stage at the beginning of the Russian concert, the audience applauded and screamed as if they were rock stars, and at the second the musicians walked on with a bit of a rock star strut. Sir Simon also had much warmth to receive, but the most enthusiastic applause of all went to Herr Haas, and well-deserved it was. I have enjoyed some of Sir Simon’s performances immensely and reviewed them with due enthusiasm. He and the orchestra have been touring with the symphonies for over a year, and the recordings were made over the course of 2013. Perhaps they are tired of them, and Rattle is working hard to keep the interest alive. By now it may be past Robert Schumann’s tbedtime—at least in Berlin.
Tschüß, mein Liebchen, bis ich Dich an dieser Ecke wieder sehe!