Tuesday, February 1, 2011

From Berlin with love

The Philharmonia Quartett Berlin (at left) really needs no introduction, given the orchestra referenced by its name - these are four players on holiday from what is probably the best (and certainly the most prestigious) symphony on the planet.  Be that as it may, however, they're still orchestra players - who are often known more for sublime craft than for electricity or passion.

Which isn't to say the Philharmonia only colored within the lines at their Celebrity Series concert last weekend (their Boston debut) - they just rarely let rip.  But at the same time, they undemonstratively demonstrated something far more than craftsmanship (even far more than the finest craftsmanship).  Their readings of the Shostakovich Quartet No. 13, Beethoven's "Razumovsky" and Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" revealed superb insight and an unfailing musical intelligence.  I'm glad I heard them. But at least until the Schubert,  a sense of over-arching musical meaning often eluded these expert players, perhaps because they seemed to prefer attention to detail to construction of a grand statement.  Having shed their conductor (these days the erstwhile Simon Rattle), you sometimes got the feeling they still needed one.

The Shostakovich quartet - a late one - proved most problematic.  In it the Russian master faces death squarely, like Beckett, and without illusion or even hope; still,  despite its bracing honesty, the piece clearly is keening at times - other moments come off as paroxysms of sheer terror - and the composer's characteristic wicked scratch still has a little life left in it.  Even more to the point, the quartet closes with a seeming scream, and then a few clock-like ticks: the last seconds of life are dripping out.  Yet the Philharmonia's studious approach seemed to bring out every facet of the work without conveying either its grief or its sense of bitter acceptance; thus it was absorbing as a musical demonstration without being gripping as drama.

Better was the Beethoven "Razumovsky" - even though again the Philharmonia's devotion to detail seemed to undo the kind of impression the piece can make in other hands.  But to be fair, this time the problem lies right in the music: the "Razumovsky" seems to steadily pose brilliant, even grand, ideas, only to diminish them, even fritter them away - and the Philharmonics (that's what I'll call them from now on) refused to fudge on that; they followed Beethoven's instructions to the letter.

The best, fortunately, was yet to come: the famous Andante con moto of "Death and the Maiden" was just about everything it should be: sublimely lyrical, yet delicately poised and effortlessly balanced.  This music, of course, lies near the beginning of the long sweep of nineteenth century music that is the Berlin's specialty, so it was no surprise the quartet should have such a nuanced understanding of it.  But I was almost shocked by what came next (as an encore): a really stunning reading of the slow movement from Debussy's single string quartet; in a way, it struck me as the best playing of the night.  But then Debussy is all about texture, about atmosphere, rather than statement; and this offered the Philharmonics' wonderful craft a special opportunity to shine.

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