Photo credit: Matt Dine for The New York Times
On paper, the Berlin Philharmonic’s program for the first concert of their three-night residency at Carnegie Hall seemed like a hodgepodge collection of works. On the first half, the impressionistic sounds of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun floated and vaporized against Dvôrák’s Eastern European folk-music treatment of The Golden Spinning-Wheel. Similarly in the program’s second half, Schoenberg’s end-of-Romantic-era-tonality masterpiece, Verklärte Nacht, butted heads with the staunch tonality of Elgar’s Enigma Variations.
However, as Sir Simon Rattle stated in his personal program note, the thread that connects these four seemingly unrelated works is the element of time: all four compositions were written within a five-year span of time, with the Schoenberg and Elgar actually having both been premiered in 1899. The program, in fact, was a cross-section view of the turn-of-the-century turmoil being felt across Europe.
In the hands of the Berlin Philharmonic, however, the listener could barely care about the musically disparate elements presented—the performance was simply too good to think of anything else. The Debussy was ethereal, with principal flutist Emmanuel Pahud’s initial entrance starting from nothing—his languid solo moved in serpentine fashion, eventually falling onto a bed of gentle horns and harp glissandos. The string body heaved with color, and the Philharmonic’s woodwinds created dynamic and gentle blends throughout.
After ten minutes of such subtle bliss, the Dvôrák clung to the other side of the dynamic spectrum: hunting horns were ablaze, percussion clamored and woodwinds sang sprite peasant dances. The Golden Spinning-Wheel, based on a bloody and grotesque Eastern European fairy tale, showed no signs of the dark and dramatic side of the story, however, with the overly jubilant ending sounding more like a triumphant blast of sound rather than the grim finale of a morality tale. Therein lays the beauty of the Philharmonic’s performances—inconsistencies in the composition hardly matter, as the musicians sell each and every piece they play with their virtuosic delivery.
The second half was more sonically cohesive, with the Philharmonic strings taking over for the rest of the night. Schoenberg’s depiction of Richard Dehmel’s poem moved from shadowy darkness and fear to resplendent understanding, as the poem’s lovers strengthen the bonds of their connection, despite the woman being pregnant with another man’s child. The thick and oppressive opening, full of stormy tremolos and minor-key meltdowns, gradually moves from climax to climax until arriving at a triumphant coda that fades into the distance. The strings were brilliant, giving each and every change of texture room to breathe, with a notably beautiful sense of communication in the many duos shared by the concertmaster and principal viola.
The Engima Variations proved just how much direction the Philharmonic has been able to take from their English music director. Rattle brought out a rich sense of tone from the German players, underscoring the dark theme that permeates much of the work. Although the energetic and speedy variations were tightly constructed, with every voice in the texture ringing clearly in the hall, the greatest sense of beauty was found in the quiet, humble sections of the piece—where the thick string sound was able to effortlessly float, as in the opening of the most emotional and truly tear-jerking performance of the “Nimrod” variation I have ever heard.