Tuesday 22 February 2011

Rattle and the Berlin Phil play Stravinsky's Apollon and Mahler 4

In the manner of a striptease in reverse, Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic have been gradually putting on their clothes, that is to say adding more players to the stage, over the course of the first two of their four London concerts. They began yesterday with but a string quartet, progressing to a chamber orchestra. Concert two opened with a full string orchestra for Stravinsky's Apollon musagète. By coincidence, this is the second time I've come across the work this month, the first being under the baton of Rattle's protégé Robin Ticciati, performing with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, albeit a different version (I think, I don't have my programme to hand to double check).

It is a stunning piece, so I'm more than glad to be hearing it again. Rattle had arrayed the bass section in a single row at the back of the hall, something that always provides an added visual spectacle and seems to give extra energy. The orchestra's wonderful string sound made for a beautifully textured sonic treat, helped by the way Rattle shaped the music. It was frequently gentle and poetic, yet it also contained plenty of drama, often coming from those driving bass chords.

The performance was further enhanced by Rattle's decision to keep his arms up during the pauses between movements, signalling to the audience that the piece wasn't done, and thus more or less eliminating inter-movement coughing. It is a practice to be recommended more widely, the more so as I have strong sympathy with a theory a friend expounded the other day that an awful lot of the orgy of coughing that generally greets such pauses is often more through convention than genuine need. This was starkly highlighted by cacophony that accompanied each break in the Mahler 4 that came after the interval.

But let's not talk about coughs, let's talk about the Mahler, which finally exposed the orchestra to London in their full glory. Interestingly, the last time I heard Rattle with the Berlin Philharmonic, it was for their 2006 Edinburgh Festival visit, the second half of which also featured the 4th symphony. I'm lukewarm about his CBSO recording and found that Edinburgh concert much more compelling. In purely orchestral terms, tonight's was even more so. True, in the opening bars the sleigh bells felt a little lacklustre, but from there on in it was quite something. Rattle can be a little over-analytical at times, but here the climaxes swelled naturally, overflowing with drama. At some points he did focus right in on one detail or another, almost as though turning a microscope on it, yet he did so without impeding the flow of the music. Some performances recently, such as David Zinman's survey, have seemed bent on smoothing Mahler out; not so Rattle, to me this was the composer at his angst-ridden best.

And that's not to mention the superb quality of playing. The string sound every bit as fine as it had been in the first half, then there were the fine solo contributions from the winds, and the principal horn (Stefan Dohn, I think). In the second movement with his second violin, as he had been in his solos in the Stravinsky with his first, leader Daishin Kashimoto was exemplary.

As the work progressed a question began to trouble me. Where was Christine Schäfer? Often in the 4th, the soprano takes her place at between the third and fourth movements but she did not. Perhaps Rattle was gunning for a Runnicles-esque award for magical placement of forces and had her spirited away up in the gods or some alcove somewhere. Surely he wouldn't try and bring her on in what should be a seamless gap between the final two movements. In the end he opted for about the best comprise I've ever seen: having her enter during the last great climax of the third movement. And what a hauntingly powerful movement it was too, with both those emotionally charged swells and the tantalizing super-pianissimos that an orchestra of this calibre is capable of producing. The transition into the finale was as magical as could be hoped for.

Unfortunately, any performance of the 4th ultimately rides or falls on the performance of the soloist, so critical is her role in the work's delicate close. Schäfer certainly had a nice clean voice, suitably childlike and innocent. There was just one problem: you could barely hear her, even towards the front and centre of the balcony. True, the Barbican's acoustic is not great for singers, but I've heard others fill it much better. I don't blame poor accomopaniment since often it was difficult to see how the orchestra could have played very much quieter. In fairness, she was audible in the money notes at the end of each verse, and fine they were too. But the overall poor balance left an unsatisfying feeling. It just felt like her voice wasn't big enough for the venue.

Still, as a showcase of orchestral excellent, the evening was a treat. And, in fairness, the 4th is devilishly difficult to bring off well. They're back again at the Barbican tomorrow for Schubert's great C major, Haydn 99 and a new horn concerto and Where's Runnicles will be back there with them.

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