Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic return with warmth and brilliance

Tue Nov 17, 2009 at 6:26 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

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Sir Simon Rattle conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra Monday night at Symphony Center. Photo: Monika Rittershaus

“That was awesome!” enthused one young woman to her companion as they exited the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’s concert at Symphony Center Monday night.

Awesome, it was. There are great orchestras and there are great orchestras. And then there’s the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

The storied German ensemble with a roster of music directors that reads like a who’s who of the top podium masters of the last 150 years (Karajan, Abbado, Furtwangler, Celibidache, Nikisch, von Bulow) came to Chicago for a one-night stand as part of its current  six-city American tour.

Now in the seventh year of his reign as artistic director and principal conductor of the Berliners, Sir Simon Rattle appears to have triumphed over any initial bumps in the road following his appointment in 2002. Indeed, there were plentiful smiles and much good cheer among and between the Berlin musicians and their frizzy-haired British conductor, and this does indeed seem to be a marriage that is going to last.

The program of Wagner, Schoenberg and Brahms provided an apt showcase for the celebrated orchestra. The transition in the corporate sound that began under Claudio Abbado has now found full fruition under Rattle, with the gelatinous layer of the late Karajan years peeled back and replaced with a youthful dynamism and more muscular bravura.

Unchanged are the tonal gleam and turn-on-a dime corporate virtuosity, as was manifest in the opener, the Prelude to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. The Berliners’ refinement and burnished sound remain extraordinary (those cellos are glorious), and this boldly projected performance also showed the players’ pride and commitment, every string player fairly leaping off their chairs with intensity all the way to the back stands.

Sir Simon has largely put away some of the interpretive manners and idiosyncrasies that have sometimes marred otherwise impressive performances. Indeed, after several years in Berlin, Rattle appears to have largely grown into the exalted reputation prematurely bestowed on him by more partisan members of the British musical press. That podium skill was richly demonstrated in Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1.

Originally written for 15 players in 1906, Schoenberg expanded the Chamber Symphony for large orchestra three decades later. The single movement is a compressed multipart symphony with much soloistic writing for orchestra. With tonality a sometime thing and melodic and harmonic material merged, the work is a signpost of sorts between Schoenberg’s early, lush Late Romanticism and the precisely calibrated 12-tone style to come.

Rattle and the Berliners put across this challenging score with a blend of massive vehemence and charming delicacy, the Chamber Symphony, in their hands, becoming a kind of souped-up, wrong-note Mozart. The score provided ample opportunities for the Berlin principals and one wondered at the natural character and eloquence of their solo work. Dynamics were scrupulously observed by Rattle—perhaps too much so at times—and the faultless intonation and ensemble playing were most impressive, as with the hushed rustle of the string quartet near the coda.

The magnificent set of Brahms symphonies recently released by Sir Simon and the Berliners (EMI), is not only one of their most outstanding recordings to date, but one of the finest Brahms sets released in many years.

Anticipation was therefore high for Monday’s performance of Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 and Rattle and company did not disappoint. Even for an orchestra with a famous and well-documented Brahms tradition, rarely will one hear such an ideal blend of burnished lyricism, distinctive solo playing and hair-trigger excitement as Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic provided in this much-performed work.

The conductor’s gift in Brahms is a mastery of the long line and a sustained focus and intensity with not a note sounding half-hearted or glossed over. The Adagio was taken at a flowing tempo, deep and expressive but wholly unsentimental. The woodwinds provided individual charm and vernal freshness in the Allegretto grazioso, and the concluding movement was thrilling, the Berlin brass clarion yet never blowsy, providing a final burst of adrenaline at the coda.

The cheers and applause of the packed house brought Rattle back for repeated ovations and he directed many solo bows for the Berlin members. No encore was offered but the warmth of the Berlin Philharmonic’s music-making undoubtedly sent the audience out fully fortified into the chill winds of Michigan Avenue.

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3 Responses to “Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic return with warmth and brilliance”

  1. Posted Nov 17, 2009 at 9:24 pm by richard

    Couldn’t have said it better. Viewing it from the terrace gave one a unique perspective of watching the conductor masterfully doing his job. I hope they return to Chicago again.

  2. Posted Nov 18, 2009 at 5:29 pm by James

    Well said indeed. Those glorious cellos – and how about those hard working basses digging into each part with obvious relish? It felt to me like Rattle’s impeccable, unfailing phrasing superseded movements and even individual pieces. The entire concert felt like one unified arc, maintaining the operatic drama and intensity of the Wagner overture through to the blazing finale of the Brahms.

    Richard, I enjoyed watching maestro Rattle at work from the terrace as well. And we were in good company with none other than Chicago classical celeb Carl Grapentine sitting down the row from us.

  3. Posted Nov 18, 2009 at 5:36 pm by Boris

    They must’ve got better in a hurry. The NYC reviews weren’t so kind.

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