Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic play Brahms and Schoenberg at Carnegie Hall

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Sir Simon Rattle

Sir Simon Rattle

Carnegie Hall, November 11-13, 2009

1. Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle, Music Director and Conductor

Brahms-Schoenberg, Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25
Brahms, Symphony No. 1

2. Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle, Music Director and Conductor
Evelyn Herlitzius, Soprano

Schoenberg, Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9b
Schoenberg, Erwartung
Brahms, Symphony No. 2

3. Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle, Music Director and Conductor

Brahms, Symphony No. 3
Schoenberg, Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene, Op. 34
Brahms, Symphony No. 4

By opening the Berlin Philharmonic’s three-concert series at Carnegie Hall with Schoenberg’s arrangement of Brahms’ G minor Piano Quartet Sir Simon Rattle made a definite statement about what was to come and how we should listen to it, but just what this meant was not clear until we heard the performance. Since the arrangement has found a place in the repertory, conductors have succumbed all too easily to the temptation to take advantage of its powers as a crowd-pleaser, but it is far more than that, as Rattle and the BPO brilliantly demonstrated. Schoenberg wrote it as an illustration of his thesis that Brahms, regarded widely as a conservative composer in the early twentieth century, was in fact a modernist, but in doing this Schoenberg accomplished something devilishly clever, as this performance made clear: he translated chamber music into orchestral music, using a large orchestra, extensive percussion and other instruments totally antithetic to chamber music. While doing this, he achieved the converse in making a large orchestra play chamber music, and the Berlin players were easily able and willing to play it as if they actually were. This was not in the least a display of virtuosity—although it was hair-raisingly impressive—but an expression of a Schoenbergian paradox, which is as enlightening in regard to Brahms as it is about the relationship between chamber and orchestral music. At the very least it opened our ears to hear Brahms’s Symphonies in a new way, but not as chamber music: as free and flexible as the Berlin players are, Rattle hadn’t the slightest interest in compromising the true symphonic character of the works. Their monumentality was always apparent, no matter how intimate the playing of soloists. One could easily hear through the symphonic ensemble to the finer textures within—a unique balance of transparency and a rich, substantial tone, which, it seems, only the Berlin Philharmonic can achieve.

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The G Minor Quartet, as Rattle interpreted it, was most definitely chamber music writ large, and it was as much Schoenberg as Brahms. Schoenberg’s Haydnesque wit and sense of ambiguity was constantly present, as he transformed the sound of three strings and piano into entirely alien orchestral sounds, which still hinted at the original. While I, during the first movement, found myself listening to Brahms’ quartet in my head, I gave myself over in the second movement. Every now and then, Schoenberg would allude to the original timbres himself, most astonishingly and amusingly in the passionate unison theme in the final movement, when the full Berlin strings mimicked the sound of Brahms’ string trio. If any musicians have ever perceived more in Schoenberg’s arrangement and realized it more fully, I’ve certainly never heard it.

The magnificent slow introduction to the First Symphony is as good an example as any of Rattle’s approach to Brahms. In it, soaring, but rhythmically definite motifs grieve over an powerful ostinato, stressed by insistent strokes of the tympani, but here not to excess, as in some performances. Brahms has written into his music an inexorable forward pulse. Rattle, while doing nothing to disturb it, put almost no apparent effort into beating time. He concentrated instead on inspiring, cajoling, and urging the orchestra into intense expressive irregularities of phrasing, tempo, color, and texture, doing everything he possibly could to disrupt or distort this regularity. It seemed he was constantly striving to awaken the orchestra to unexpected shifts of color and mood and to the latent drama present in every cadence or transition. Just a few days ago, while preparing my review of the documentary film, Das Reichsorchester, I revisited the indispensable BBC film, The Art of Conducting – Legendary Conductors of a Golden Era. In it I was especially struck by the segments of Willem Mengelberg at work and what Yehudi Menuhin said about them. Mengelberg injected his lively and affecting interventions into the flow and nuance of the music, as much in timbre as as in pace, through his baton, which largely measured the time, his expressive left hand, and his even more expressive eyes, not to mention all the rest of his body language. Menuhin said, “What struck me was the extraordinary power of his musical analysis, precisely of those irregularities, of those deformations, which interest me a great deal, excursions away from the metronomic time and the holding back of certain chords to emphasize the rhythm, and other…what I call distortions, which are actually the proof of life, of living.” This could apply just as well to Rattle. Not only does he mould each phrase in constantly involving, fascinating ways, which one could call baroque (referring to the forms of a baroque pearl and not to the musical style) he allows every voice to be heard, so that the entire sound field of the orchestra vibrates with subtle variations of color and energy, quite the opposite of the opaque, glossy surface his predecessor, Herbert von Karajan, presented to the public. This free, open approach to orchestral balance means that there was much less obvious “pointing” of inner voices and other details. In this respect, as well as in the quality of the playing and the musicians’ freedom of movement, the performances did in fact resemble chamber music. In spite of this apparent concentration on detail, the pace never grew slack, and in all four symphonies Rattle’s sense of structure and shape was unerring.

In the First, Rattle got Brahms’ interweaving of the lyrical, the tragic, and the heroic absolutely right, and the Second seemed entirely rejuvenated. As ingratiating as Brahms’ main subject is, its bone structure is dangerously regular, and the Second demands a performance of the highest level. It can’t drag; Brahms’ constructed patterns cannot be disguised; and Brahms’ purposed lyricism needs a certain flexibility to reach our feelings. Rattle went beyond that and delved into the inner textures and fleeting moods of the music, creating a feeling of spontaneous discovery. This persisted in the slow movement, which here, as in all four symphonies, stood at the center of the edifice, and Rattle fully recognized that fact: all his slow movements were broad, exploratory, and full of surprises—or better, revelations, although not so much in a specific sense relating to the fabric of the music, as in color and feeling. For these reasons, I can’t remember ever hearing such an affecting third movement, either, and the final movement was full of mass as well as energy, while always open to the inner voices. The amazing brass players of the Philharmoniker brought the Second to a thrilling conclusion, bringing their ease, gorgeous tone, and subtlety even to the final fanfares.

Of the four, the Third is notoriously the most difficult to bring off. (I can’t quite explain why, unless it’s because Brahms wrote the music in such an economical, hard-wired fashion, that conductors have little room to manoeuvre: it is especially difficult to balance the energetic and the more relaxed, slightly languid, sections of the first movement.) In Rattle’s truly grand account of this movement Brahms’ constantly repeated arpeggi still seemed a trifle insistent. Perhaps it was merely my state of mind, as I came in off the street, since the symphony opened the final program, with no Schoenberg to adjust my consciousness, as in the first and second evenings. In the second movement I found myself fully engaged, deeply absorbed, between the beauty of the wind playing in tone and phrasing and the penetration of Rattle’s interpretation. In both the inner movements it seemed as if the qualities of chamber music were fully inhabiting a large symphonic space. The fourth movement was, as before, large in weight and scale, but extremely detailed.

The open, intimate textures of the orchestra made it possible for Rattle to approach the Fourth without any need to bestow undue privilege on any specific voices over others. In other words, the balances were extremely subtle. The winds and the strings at the beginning of the first movement could continue on in a less marked fashion as the music progressed. For example, just before the introduction of the descending eighth-note figures (A) in the exposition we heard the transitional, ornamented phrase in the first violins (not always audible itself) against the stately, drawn-out progressions in the winds. In the fourth movement passacaglia this clarity of texture and the marvellous playing brought out a chamber-music-like delicacy and variety of tone that was unlike any performance I have heard. On the other hand, the space-expanding effect of the tympani was especially important here. Rattle’s insight into the music went far beyond timbre and technique: each variation, as it appeared, was revelatory. The Brahms cycle was in fact on a consistently splendid level, but this last, greatest symphony of Brahms, seemed the most impressive achievement of all. I was hoping the last chord would die out entirely before the uproar. Alas, it didn’t happen, but only by a fraction of a second. The capacity audience broke out into wild applause. As on the previous two evenings, Sir Simon’s comprehensive acknowledgements of the individual sections of the orchestra were more than a formality. The Berlin Philharmonic were warmly and sincerely applauded as a group of soloists, which in fact they are.

It only makes sense to discuss the Brahms cycle as a unit, but there were important Schoenberg works on the programs as well, and their positions in relation to the symphonies were significant. Brahms’ Second followed Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9b, written in 1906 and arranged for full orchestra in 1935 and the dramatic scene, Erwartung (Expectation), Op. 17, of 1909. On a simple, obvious level the Chamber Symphony, like so many other works of the first decade of the twentieth century, was a product of composers’ strivings to reconcile Wagner and Brahms. Today, music historians are inclined to minimize their differences, and it’s true that neither composer lost much sleep over the other, but the dichotomy grew after their deaths and became a dilemma, or a mission, for the next generation. With its lush textures and febrile lyricism the Chamber Symphony proves a sympathetic partner for Brahms’ Second. The immaculate playing, elegant timbre, and clarity of the performance not only made it appealing to broad audience, but did full justice to Schoenberg.

His one-person opera, Erwartung, is one of his masterpieces, an intense dramatic monologue by a woman, who goes out in search of her unfaithful lover and is surprised to find his dead body in the forest. The four sections of this half-hour work are fraught with confused ejaculations, as the character transverses a vast ranges of dark emotions, fears, and imaginings. Again, Rattle and the BPO did a marvellous job of holding it all in proportion and maintaining a coherent flow. The soprano, Evelyn Herlitzius, adopted an compatible approach by avoiding any compromise of her creamy, almost lush voice. This didn’t at all inhibit her from singing her broken lines with powerful expression. Her performance was right on the mark, outstanding in every way.

Schoenberg’s brief orchestral work, Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene, Op. 34, received a performance which unravelled its dense texture and expression without compromising its natural pace, which, like Erwartung, is dramatic, since it is an accompaniment to an imaginary scene from a movie, progressing through four key moods: threatening, danger, fear, and catastrophe. What more appropriate companion for Brahms’ eight-bar passacaglia than Schoenberg’s mature twelve-tone work?

There is no doubt that Sir Simon Rattle’s work with the Berlin Philharmonic represents the best we have in music today. What’s more, he is to be thanked for giving his New York audience a substantial mini-season of coherent, meaningful programming, which gives us a deeper understanding of two great composers, and leaves us in the assurance that their music is very much alive today.


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About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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