Maestro Søndergård gave his all, with the Berliners spurning any sign of pandemic gloom. Of course, the program reflected the bitter irony of the variegated excesses of the 1920s. Like a dream of a pristine past, Sibelius’s Sixth, the centerpiece, stood in reflective and almost solemn relief.
It was a tease this time—opening with minimalist Boulez. But it was worth it. Anyone growing up past mid-century recalls an era when whole portions of the German symphonic experience were seeming property of the Berlin Philharmonic and its legendary conductor, Herbert von Karajan. Put a Berlin Philharmonic LP of Brahms, Strauss, Beethoven or Bruckner on the turntable, and the golden DGG logo virtually guaranteed this orchestra would sound richer, probe more deeply than any other and elicit sheer heft without parallel. No string or brass section would glow as beautifully or emit more power. If that didn't convey authority, as it surely did to anyone with good ears, Karajan's mesmeric space-commander hair, ascetic tunic and "visionary closed eyes" (interesting notion, that) encouraged along the way our notion of insights to be found within—most of them worthy and real.
After the stunning concert with Simon Rattle leading the Berliner Philharmoniker at Boston’s Symphony Hall—Pierre Boulez’s scintillating Éclat followed (without intermission) by Mahler’s black sheep Symphony No. 7—I couldn’t stop shaking. There’s a lot of good music in Boston, but this was different—on a whole other level. And the audience knew it, felt it. Wasn’t it just what we needed to hear after the bruising election? People were not only cheering but weeping and hugging each other.
The fall 2015 orchestral season at Carnegie Hall was dominated by the Boston Symphony Orchestra's traditional three-concert visit, this time in October, and a five-concert traversal of Beethoven's symphonies by the Berlin Philharmonic under their outgoing principle conductor/artistic director, Simon Rattle. Both had their joys and peculiarities, but only Berlin confronted us with any actual disappointments.
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.
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.
A U.S. tour by one of the great European orchestras is a a costly endeavor—for everyone concerned—and, even if it is a biennial occurrence, it should be nothing less than an important event, especially in New York. I find it a severe disappointment when an orchestra offers routine programming on tour, no matter how well it shows off their glories. These are missed opportunities. The Berlin Philharmonic and their Director, Sir Simon Rattle, therefore deserve our thanks for sticking with the “curated” programming which made their last visit to Carnegie Hall such a memorable esperience. Back then, they combined a cycle of Brahms symphonies with works by Arnold Schoenberg. This year they have taken a step forward and a step back, narrowing their range, to explore the origins of the modern in music in the 1890s. On the way, they have also managed to include some of Sir Simon's signature repertoire in Elgar's "Enigma" Variations and Mahler's Second Symphony, both among the works with which he made his reputation early in his career.