Monday, November 16, 2009

The Berlin and Brahms

The Berlin Philharmonic, under Sir Simon Rattle, in the famous "Poco Allegretto" movement of the Brahms Third.

The Berlin Philharmonic is widely held to be the greatest orchestra in the world.

And who am I to disagree? Particularly given last Sunday's memorable Celebrity Series concert at Symphony Hall? The program was basically given over to Brahms - the Third and Fourth Symphonies - interrupted by a Schoenberg curio, "Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene." This is core repertory for the Berlin, it's clearly in their bones, and from the opening notes, it was apparent both Brahms symphonies were in superb shape: as complex and cerebral as you'd expect, yet passionately rendered and deeply moving. (The opening of the third movement of the Third, above, gives you some idea of the pathos the Berlin can achieve; the excerpt from the fourth movement of the Fourth, below, gives you a sense of their power.)

To be honest, the Berlin offered no shocking insights into either work, and yet neither piece felt like some showpiece trotted out for a tour (even though, yes, the symphony is "supporting" its recent re-recordings of all four symphonies). Rather, this was simply committed playing of the highest intellectual and technical caliber - something the BSO only regularly achieves under James Levine. And yet, to be honest, the Berlin has something the BSO lacks even then - a sense of philosophical, perhaps even historical, profile above and beyond the limits of musical aestheticism (which Levine pushes practically to its limit).

One could look to the brilliant Sir Simon Rattle (left), the orchestra's current conductor, as the source of this special "something extra" - except that Rattle, at least in these performances, often seemed to be facilitating rather than conducting the orchestra. He only intermittently kept a beat, and sometimes actually turned away from the instrumental section leading the score to focus on one particular player or another. The impression was of a slightly-distracted mystic by now so confident in his ensemble that he could use actual performances as scenes of private communication with his musicians; Rattle was simply polishing the gleaming sound of the Berlin here and there, working away at individual details, even as the leviathan moved forward with both coherence and spontaneity.

This, of course, is far from the famous template that Herbert von Karajan imposed on the orchestra - during his reign, the symphony was renowned for its meticulously sculpted finish (not too far from what Levine achieves in his own way with the BSO). But things today at the Berlin seem somehow more sonically complicated; the startlingly lustrous horns, the delicate winds, and the dynamic strings all seemed to be communicating and responding to each other rather than simply the conductor - although, of course, at some level Rattle must be the designer of this glorious architecture. One guesses the process of "putting all this together" hasn't been entirely easy; these things never are - the Berlin has renewed Rattle's contract through 2020, but only after rumors of some internal strife. But what one senses through and beneath the orchestra's current glory is something like a new model of music-making, from the organization that was once the avatar of old-school, top-down regimentation.

Not that I quite agreed with everything these musical communards came up with. The Brahms Third struck me as wonderful throughout, and the first and second movements of the Fourth were in the same mode - subtle yet ravishing. I felt that the third movement of the Fourth, however, could have been a bit more playful, and the final movement seemed conventionally, and perhaps a bit flatly, "big" in a way that slightly disappointed after what had come before. These were minor caveats, however. Even the Schoenberg proved interesting - although perhaps what intrigued me most was discovering that Schoenberg himself understood the limits on his method (limits that I've written about before). The jagged "Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene" asks the audience to imagine it as a piece of program music to some unseen thriller. And amusingly, this does disarm the irritation that atonal music produces in audiences, which generally cannot comprehend the movement of time in music without a sense of harmonics. A "program" - even an imaginary one - greatly ameliorates that sense of frustration. It also, frankly, helped that "Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene" was quite short. Like most people, I like my Schoenberg short.

From the final movement of the Brahms Fourth.

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