The first of the Berliner Philharmoniker’s two concerts at this year’s BBC Proms was an early evening affair which saw the juxtaposition of two great Russian dance-inspired orchestral show-pieces, one its composer’s summation of his orchestral output and the other instrumental in establishing its author as amongst the most radical and innovative voices of the twentieth century. A predictably crowd-pleasing evening it might have been, but for an orchestra and conductor of this calibre it was a routine day at the office.
Sir Simon Rattle’s direction of the opening movement of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances took the tempo marking of Non allegro at its word, yet he never dragged the phrasing or unduly slowed it. To a large extent Rattle’s involving and highly danceable conception was made more effective by the interplay of interestingly combined timbres – piano against strings and harp or acerbic woodwind comments alongside percussion, for example – all deployed with a knowing deftness of touch. The solo alto saxophone melody, once ground-breaking in an orchestral context, registered its full impact also. The middle movement, Tempo di valse, was from the start disturbing in its latent menace and reminded of Prokofievian excess, which was entirely appropriate. But despite the writing perhaps more terror could have been brought to the performance if only the trumpet and trombone players were taken more out of their comfort zone. The final movement was imbued with the spirit of an altogether more heady flight of fancy, whilst being the most symphonic of all the movements in some senses. Rattle judiciously steered a course towards the final climax that was thrillingly driven and passionate to warrant the exuberant reception it was awarded by the capacity audience.
For me at least, Stravinsky’s music for The Firebird proves itself to be so inventively replete with detail and incident that were it not conceived of as a ballet it might have been film music of the highest order. In any rate the music has become so divorced from its original purpose in the concert hall that it serves as a magnificent tapestry to take the listener on a private journey wherever he or she wishes. There was indeed much to marvel at in the way Rattle and his Berlin forces captured the shifting changes of mood and timbre within Stravinsky’s score, holding the music in restraint for much of the time to make the greatest impact with the tutti and fortissimo passages later on. Indeed, this was a performance that one could luxuriate in, as Rattle himself did since for sizeable periods he contented himself with merely urging in the entrances and allowing his musicians to take their own care with matters of phrasing. The ballet’s close however proved irresistible in its lure to draw one in and won me over to the performance’s merits with the plaintive Firebird theme proving as effective as ever, but being a master manipulator of audience reaction was always one of Stravinsky’s trump cards. The assembled crowd simultaneously raised the roof and, in the arena at least, tested the floor’s foundations with quite the wildest foot stamping heard for some time.
The reward was a single encore, the Intermezzo from Puccini’s Manon Lesault. This might have been a world away from Stravinsky, but the playing embodied initial tenderness in its chamber element and plushness of sound that did not neglect the drama within the music.
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