Rattle leads the Berlin Philharmonic through Sibelius’s symphonies at the Barbican

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Jean Sibelius.

Jean Sibelius.

The Barbican, London, UK
The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle, conductor

February 10, 2015
Sibelius – Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Opus 39
Sibelius – Symphony No. 2 in D major, Opus 43

February 12, 2015
Sibelius – Symphony No. 5 in E flat, Opus 82

Sibelius – Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Opus 104
Sibelius – Symphony No. 7 in C major, Opus 105

The best part of a love affair, wrote Georges Clémenceau some hundred years ago, is the moment you are climbing the stairs. It was, one hopes, not a cynical remark but a commentary on the pleasures of anticipation. I thought of this last month as I negotiated stairs at London’s Barbican Centre. A visit by the Berlin Philharmonic is always, if not a love affair, then certainly a thrill. But the otherwise admirable and much used Barbican is a windowless maze, and climbing the various levels can make for the seeming triumph of cluelessness over romance.

Be that as it may, the Berlin Philharmonic was in residency at the Barbican during my visit, and I caught two of the three evenings Sir Simon Rattle devoted to the symphonies of Sibelius. Before the opening concert, a reception was held for the press to welcome the Berlin orchestra, and one quickly became aware that musical vectors in London had come together for a major pivot.

Rattle has turned sixty. Now the most renowned conductor in the United Kingdom, he is to leave the Berlin Philharmonic the year after next. And he has just accepted, as Sir Colin Davis did before him, the London Symphony Orchestra’s Music Directorship as the appropriate form of his homecoming. He is clearly thinking of his legacy. Critical to this appointment, a condition of it, has been the building of a new and improved concert hall for London. Indeed, Rattle’s concern may turn out to be the catalyst needed for this to happen. A feasibility study by the powers involved has already been set in motion. It will be interesting to learn what proposals emerge, and how they are affected by the impossible dearth of undeveloped land in London.

Architectural models sometimes look geometrically convincing, because they show a building from the air. This is surely the case with the Barbican Centre, which came into being partially to redevelop a bombed out area of London. Architecturally, it is now recognized as an important example of mid-century “brutalism,” though some might think the term concedes rather a lot! But at ground level it is confusing, with no general shape being evident and the concert hall only to be found, after a long trek through a parking garage tunnel, around the corner from a darkened plaza. Indeed, on a visit some years ago, I made the mistake of going through the wrong doors, only to find I was being led to a gynecologists’ conference!

The purely musical drama unfolding has its nuances, as well. Despite many recordings under Karajan, the Berlin Philharmonic has never been entirely comfortable with Sibelius. Rattle, meanwhile, is impassioned about the composer, and so is much of Britain. Sir Simon recorded the symphonies early-on with his City of Birmingham Orchestra. And the London Symphony has recorded the cycle with Sir Colin Davis.  So, odd as it might seem, the Berlin Philharmonic probably felt it had something to prove on this visit to London. Indeed, the seven symphonies on CD, just recorded, were prominently on sale in the public area as a luxurious coffee table book.

The acoustic at the Barbican has been kindly described by Rattle, himself, as “serviceable.” This is only partially true, when the hall is full. When it’s half empty, scarcely a desideratum, the balcony can be very listenable. And the sound is indeed balanced well from top to bottom. But the side walls are ultimately too far apart for sufficient reflected sound, and there is painfully little reverberation when the seats are full. Strong separated chords, like those concluding the Sibelius Fifth Symphony, die a coat-closet death.

The Fifth, as it turned out, was my favorite of the Berlin performances, consistently deep and expansive—but nervously stressed and explosive. Second movement inner voices were gleamingly managed, and pianissimi written into string parts in the finale were for once almost unimaginably quiet. This is an orchestra which can actually play softly! The second half of this program combined the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies without pause, and Rattle made a certain case for thinking of them as the same work—except for the fact that they are not. The Sixth Symphony, like the Fourth, ends with a special tentativeness all its own. Even so, the Sixth was done with delicacy, if not the rapt subtlety one hoped for. In the right hall, the opening string passages can flow beautifully as a mountain stream. Here, they sounded a bit cutting. You could hear the seams.  Rattle’s take on the Seventh was a grand and noble one, and larger than the performance I heard him give with the Berlin Philharmonic in Washington at the beginning of his tenure. Nobody has managed, though, the massiveness Sir Colin Davis elicited from the Boston Symphony in 1976. His CD of the Seventh remains iconic.

I was less happy with the first two Sibelius Symphonies, performed on the opening night of the Berlin residency. They depend on a rich lower sonority to support powerful eruptions from brass and timpani. And it wasn’t always there. From where I was sitting, you could see the timpani working up a storm, but without hearing a great deal of impact. And brasses growling in the two symphonies, resplendent in a reverberant hall, merely sounded ill-tempered here. Overall, both Rattle and the Berliners, I felt, may not care for the first two symphonies as much as for the others. This was true of Karajan as well, who openly said so. A certain sleekness crept into Rattle’s performances here, and despite his refinements, this may not have been the last word on the first two Sibelius symphonies.

Still, any visit by the Berlin Philharmonic remains a thrill, the love affair at the top of the stairs. The individual players are of mind-boggling quality. And no orchestra manages a sonority as effortlessly big as Berlin’s. But climbing the stairs at the Barbican can be confusing. The second movement of the Sibelius First was delayed for a moment to seat a patron who had gotten lost in the hallways, a flamboyant drag queen in a mink coat. He descended the aisle to his seat with the loudest boot heels I have ever heard. One was tempted to revise one’s assessment of the acoustics.

About Steven Kruger

Steven Kruger is a former classical concert agent. For a number of years he supervised the roster of conductors at Shaw Concerts in New York City, representing such artists as Sir Andrew Davis, Sir Neville Marriner, Rafael Fruhbeck De Burgos, Jose Serebrier and Robert Shaw.

Born in New York City in 1947 to a German immigrant father and an American mother, Kruger is a descendant of 19th century Bach biographer Philipp Spitta. He was educated at Phillips Exeter and Princeton, and received his degree in Philosophy, but turned to music administration after a brief career as a military officer and as a stockbroker.

Early in his exposure to music, Kruger developed a special fondness for the British Symphonists, and as a concert agent was able to play a part in the revival of such composers as Elgar, Delius, Walton, Bax and Vaughan Williams during the late 1970s.

He continues today as an advocate for these and other 19th and 20th century neo-romantic symphonic composers, such as D’Indy, Magnard, Korngold, Schmidt and Tubin, who were at one time eclipsed by the mid-century fashion for academic music. Now living in California, Steven Kruger reviews selected concerts in Davies Hall by The San Francisco Symphony and international visiting orchestras. Since 2011, he has written program notes on demand for the Oregon Symphony, including their recent CDs, “Music for a Time of War” and “This England”. He contributes a regular CD review column to New York Arts twice a month called A Crop of Recordings and is a masthead reviewer for Fanfare, America’s most serious remaining hardcover journal devoted to recorded music.