Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Berlin Philharmonic/Rattle @ Barbican Hall, London

22 February 2011

In the third of four concerts in the Berlin Philharmonics London 2011 season, the most famous piece was Schuberts Great Symphony No. 9 in C, D.944. This was closely followed by Haydns Symphony No. 99 in E flat, which made it all the more remarkable that the composition that stood out was Toshio Hosokawas Concerto for horn and orchestra Moment of Blossoming, which only enjoyed its world premiere twelve days ago in Berlin.

It prevailed because it worked wonderfully with the sound that the orchestra generated all evening, a sound that in many ways could not be faulted. Tender and elegant, rhythmically precise and tonally strong, the sheer beauty of the playing shone through at every turn, with the wind proving particularly impressive.

On occasions, however, and most noticeably in the Haydn, the orchestra lacked flair. In the first movement the strings glistened and gleamed, and the transition from the slow opening to the main theme was well managed, courtesy of the sweeping nature of the phrasing employed. In spite of this, there was a lack of excitement, and everything felt too much on the same level. This issue was to recur throughout the symphony although visually the orchestra and conductor Sir Simon Rattle seemed to be giving it their all.

When the Berlin Philharmonic first appeared with Rattle at the Proms in 2003, the lack of panache was a criticism that many levied, but it has not been raised on its more recent visits to London. It is possible, however, to overstate the point for, although the same problem arose in the Schubert, it was far less obvious.

The first movement was particularly fine, and the opening horns produced a beautiful and evenly balanced sound. The interplay between the wind and strings was also strong, eliciting a march-like stridency and energetic sound. In contrast, the otherwise wondrous Andante con moto, in which the wind truly excelled, suddenly hit a point where, viscerally rather than rhythmically, it seemed to sag. The third movement suffered in a similar way, although the sense of freedom and expansiveness was notable. The final movement, in contrast, did take off as it exuded excitement while keeping every rhythm breathtakingly precise.

Hosokawas Concerto was the most successful piece, however, precisely because panache was not an ingredient required of it. His composition sets up the solo horn as the individual (specifically a lotus) and the orchestra as the cosmos or nature (portrayed as a pond). It then focuses on the moment when the flower surfaces from the deep and blossoms.

As the percussion, wind and strings created the waters surface, and instruments placed in the balcony provided an echo to Stefan Dohrs solo horn, precise timing and beauty of tone were the only things required to produce a mystical, magical sound. This was ultimately a fine concert, lacking only that extra ingredient needed to make it a truly great one.

The final concert in the Berlin Philharmonics London 2011 season is on 23 February in the Royal Festival Hall.

Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk

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