Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Berliner Philharmoniker/Rattle @ Barbican, London

7 March 2007

When Simon Rattle performed at the Edinburgh Festival last August, I wrote that his harsh critics in the German popular press were not unjustified in their attacks.

Such a claim seemed ludicrous after the Berliner Philharmoniker‘s appearance at the Barbican on Wednesday, for this was as committed a concert as we will see there for quite some time.

The orchestra remains miraculous with, on this evidence, the firmest tones, greatest security and most astounding instrumental virtuosity of about any band in the world.

And with Rattle at the driving wheel, Dvork’s Seventh Symphony was a startling experience. The vast lushness of sound threatened to smother the Allegro maestoso‘s dance rhythms, but the malleable direction and pinpoint responsiveness of the orchestra hurried to delineate every line and illuminate every melody, countermelody and instrumental solo with gleaming clarity.

What impressed, however, was the intense concentration from every player and the consequently engulfing emotional sweep that evoked every ounce of Dvork’s hardy national pride. The gate-crashing minor key interruption of the Poco Adagio was sublimely judged, as were the brushed woodwind solos and luxuriating string pianos at the movement’s final breaths. The Scherzo impressed for the almost bombastic vigour of the outer sections and the especially ambiguous unease at its core. And the (here) thrusting octave leap at the Finale‘s opening opened the door for a ten minute treasure chest of surging emotions, conveyed through the astonishing precision of the violins, the turbulent double bass rockets, the unsurpassable brass and the propelling vision of Simon Rattle. Passion was the key, and it was nothing short of breathtaking.

The UK premiere of Thomas AdsTevot was, if anything, an even more awesome experience. Even the Philharmoniker could not cope with some of the gargoylish complexities (what violin section could retain a stable pitch in such consistently high registers?), yet for all the sweat-inducing technicalities of the work, the humanity, warmth and sincerity of expression were what stood out. Halfway through, woodwind solos are draped from the violin line in patterns of elaborate, occasionally delirious, counterpoint. Ads’s compact melodic cells frequently blossom into extended motifs: the counterpoint condenses into a lush melody on the strings, echoing either Mahler or Morricone and with dangerous dissonance seared into the fabric.

What it all means is anyone’s guess, but musically it is a triumph. The contrasts of colour, the ecstatic use of instruments and structures (including a semi-fugue for woodwind and percussion) and the sheer joy of composition, found in everything from soaring trumpet arcs to the most delicate brushings of oboes, made this one of the most memorable premieres that London has seen in a while. It also kick-started Traced Overhead, a Barbican season instigated by the works of Thomas Ads, which should prove to be an unmissable look into the mind of one of the most exciting contemporary composers.

Finally, if that was not enough, the extra line of trumpeters in Jancek’s Sinfonietta attacked their fanfares with tremendous grit and power, and not a duff note was to be found. Rattle’s interpretation itself lacked some brute force, but the tightly focused woodwind textures, remarkably clean trombone lines and firmly moulded structures provided a luxurious treat; a final layer of icing on an exquisite orchestral cake.

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