As you've probably noticed, I haven't been spending much in concert halls lately, preferring to pursue music of a whole other variety. But I made an exception this past week to go hear the Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie, where they played three concerts pairing the symphonies of Brahms with music by Schoenberg. For those of you who may not be classically inclined, or missed my coverage of their last visit in 2007, the BPO is one of the great performing arts institutions in the world: a powerhouse ensemble of 128 world class musicians, led by the British conductor Simon Rattle, who has been their Principal Conductor since 2002 - and was recently offered a contract extension that will keep him in Berlin through 2020.
Still, as I walked into Stern Auditorium on Wednesday night for the first time since April, I felt I was, to some degree, betraying my own principles. Sure, the Berlin Philharmonic may be the best orchestra in the world, but in a world of living composers who constantly struggle to get their music heard, why were they promoting this music from the 19th and early 20th centuries that's already familiar to just about everyone? Isn't that just pandering to the moneyed and elder class, who like their music the way they take their Scotch: watered down? And, with orchestra seats running $150 and up, who could blame them?
It didn't help that the first piece they played on Wednesday was Schoenberg's orchestration of Brahms' Op. 25 Piano Quartet: a truly bizarre mangling of a great piece of chamber music, schmaltzed within an inch if its life. What the hell was Schoenberg, the fearsome inventor of atonality and 12 tone music, thinking when he wrote this 45 minute bombast, complete with cymbal crashes and marimbas weakly mimicking the piano part in the finale? Sure, the BPO gave it their all, with crackling strings and crisp percussion, but if I want to hear this kind of treacle, I'll pay $10 and go to the movies.
Fortunately, there was better fare to come. As I hinted at in my post from a few days ago, the four symphonies of Brahms are deeply embedded within the BPO's DNA, more so perhaps than any other composer. In a video released by EMI to accompany their recent recording of the Brahms' symphonies, Rattle explains the nature of the relationship:
From the first moments of Brahms 1, with its dark, brooding strings, the BPO was like a seething organism, generating an orgy of sound that made my eyes roll back in my head. The violins practically leaped out of their seats as they dug into their instruments; the double basses were dancing with theirs. And Rattle, who conducted from memory (as he did with all the symphonies), was a wizard on the podium, his mop of white curls shaking with every exhortation. The symphony's conclusion, with its dramatic shift from minor to major key, is one of the great victories of music: full of majesty and grandeur, Brahms here finally lays claim to the symphonic mantle after years of struggling to live up to Beethoven (he was 43 when it was first performed in 1876.) And, in the hands of the BPO, it came off sounding like Scripture.
"Brahms is so much the sense of this orchestra's sound and style of playing. The works were newly minted when the orchestra was coming to birth, and the first three years of the orchestra's history they played all of them many, many times. The sound of Brahms is, of course, steeped in the German ethos: the idea of the forest, the sound of horns coming from a distance, even autumnal colors."
Thursday's concert began with a pair of more familiar works by Schoenberg. The Chamber Symphony No. 1 was simultaneously beautiful and difficult, played with remarkable precision and color. Erwartung, Schoenberg's monodrama about a woman having a seemingly hysterical episode, created an atmosphere of anxiety and tension with its extreme dissonances and the searing intensity of soprano Evelyn Herlitzius' performance.
So, when the BPO came back after intermission to play Brahms 2, it was a welcome relief, with pulsing brass and nimble winds, supple and pure, all in the key of D major. The playing was effortless and in perfect coordination, right up to the final, brilliant fanfare that filled the hall with golden sunshine.
Friday's concert began with Brahms 3: the shortest and most tightly constructed of the four symphonies. It was also far more subdued and labored, right up until the lyrical finale, when the strings erupted in a violent explosion of sound. This was followed by a quiet string motif that sounded like something out of Wagner's Ring before slowly fading away to silence.
After the intermission, Rattle offered one last bit of Schoenberg: the Accompaniment to a Cinemetographic Scene: a 12 tone work from 1930 based not on an actual film, but on the keywords threatening, danger, fear and catastrophe. As one might expect, the music was eerie and dystopic, filled with slapping strings and spooky woodwinds.
The concert ended with Brahms 4, a work filled with chromatic chords and heroic, clarion brass. In the first movement, Rattle seemed intent on coaxing every last bit of energy he could from the players, as if he were pulling gold from fleece. How can seventy string instruments play with such fierce and terrifying power, all in perfect unison? It is a thing that cannot be reasonably understood, much less replicated.
The second movement felt like floating on a calm sea under a bright, midday sun. Rattle took things slow and steady, seeming to savor every last bit of tender, shining beauty. The third movement was pure joy, with even the smallest, briefest details executed flawlessly: a fleet string passage, a tricky descending piccolo theme, the famous horn call played so fluidly that I almost missed it. The finale felt like a funeral march, with dark, ominous strings filling the hall with echoes at each stop. After a long, quiet middle, Rattle brought things to a big, furious finish, seemingly lost in a trance created by the wall of sound before him.
At some point during the numerous curtain calls, Rattle came onstage and asked the entire orchestra to rise. He raised his hand, then turned and exited the stage. His message was clear: This is the Berlin Philharmonic. There is no other.
And, finally, it made sense to me: here, in the hands of this peerless orchestra, Brahms is alive, no less so than Adams, or Adès, or any of the countless other living composers Rattle has tirelessly promoted as a conductor over the past three decades. Seven years into the job, and with a decade (or more) in store, Rattle and the BPO are one, exacting and exuberant. I can't wait to see what they take on next.