in: Reviews

November 18, 2009

Boston’s Professional Musicians Turn Out in Force for Rattle and Berlin Philharmonic

by

Entering Symphony Hall on Sunday, November 15, one could feel the excitement and anticipation in the air. One of the first things this reviewer noticed at this sold-out, eagerly anticipated event was that there were more professional musicians in the audience than there were on stage. Boston concertgoers are familiar with Simon Rattle from the days when he was a frequent conductor of the Boston Symphony. So expectations were high.

The Berlin Philharmonic presented two war horses, Brahms Symphony No. 3 in F Major and Symphony No. 4 in e minor, and a seldom-heard piece by Arnold Schoenberg, Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene.

After many fine Jewish composers were driven out of Germany by the Nazis, several ended up in Hollywood writing film scores. Although Schoenberg did live in Los Angeles from 1934 until his death in 1951 and was even approached by MGM Studios to write a score, the Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene was written, ironically, for a film that existed only in his imagination. In approximately eight minutes he takes us on a journey of “threatening danger, fear, catastrophe.” Since the three sections are not delineated in the score there is some debate as to where each episode occurs. To my ear there are fragments of each image throughout.

The performances of the Brahms symphonies were no less than thrilling. The ensemble playing of the Philharmonic is impeccable. The strings move together the way the winds breathe together — as one. They take their cues not just from the conductor but from each other. In the Third symphony, this reviewer was mesmerized by the sound of the pianissimo strings in support of the expressive woodwind solos throughout. The horn solo in the “Poco allegretto” was sublime, deceptively seeming effortless. In the e minor symphony attention was drawn to the rhythmic energy, beginning with the syncopation moving the music forward under the secure comfort of the opening dolce motif. The horn call opening the “Andante moderato,” played by the third and fourth horns, reminded us that it is an entire section of virtuosi. The “Allegro giocoso” with the sextuplets in the strings, often heard as a blur of color, were clearly defined, rendering this performance especially light and bright. The opening chords in the final movement featured perfect balance between the winds and brass, creating a beautiful sheen. In the coda Mr. Rattle maintained rhythmic integrity for dramatic effect.

While known for the enthusiasm that he brings to his musical endeavors, Mr. Rattle’s demeanor on the podium was somewhat restrained. In slow passages he limited his use of the baton in favor of shaping the phrases with his hands, stretching the tempo just enough so that the subtleties could be savored, but never impeding the progression of the phrase. With almost no movement at all, Mr. Rattle would let his orchestra play this music which is infused with their own tradition. There is no dead wood in this orchestra with the principal horn, oboe and timpani giving definitive performances.

Arriving for Saturday’s Boston rehearsal, Mr. Rattle saw a cellist warming up on stage. They both were awestruck by the incredible sound of the hall. Mr. Rattle remarked, “Symphony Hall makes it possible to go places with the music that they have never been before. It is like the Musikverein (Vienna), but the perfect size.” He and the Philharmonic exploited the qualities of Symphony Hall to its fullest extent. Using full bows and their entire being, the strings produced a magnificent sound. Even the pianissimos filled the hall with a delicate presence.

The audience responded with a rousing ovation to a concert that many will never forget.

Elizabeth Morse, principal harpist of the Berkshire Symphony Orchestra and formally principal harpist of Rhode Island Philharmonic, is on the faculty of Williams College.

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