A True Retrospective – Rattle and the Berlin Phil in Amsterdam

Sir Simon Rattle bids the Berlin Philharmonic goodbye after 16 years at the helm of the mighty flagship of classical music. A final tour leads him through Europe, to London, Amsterdam, Cologne and others. Last night, at the Concertgebouw, Rattle and his superb orchestra played a program of music by Hans Abrahamsen and Anton Bruckner. For me, it is the very first time hearing the Berlin Phil outside of their home in the Philharmonie.

The homage to Sir Simon and his time with the Berlin Phil begins with Hans Abrahamsen’s Three Pieces for Orchestra. Made up of three distinctly rhythmical movements, the piece accentuates the Berlin Phil’s profound sense of pulse through a constant rhythmical structure supporting the various melodies. This might have been a wink to Sir Simon’s start in orchestral music, back when he was a substitute timpanist at the Liverpool Philharmonic. Sir Simon is dictating the rhythm here, guiding the on-point percussion section through Abrahamsen’s distinct and difficult rhythmic visions. Above the percussion, the orchestra’s soloists get a chance to shine, especially concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley with a colourful solo in the second movement. All in all, Three Pieces for Orchestra is a pleasant amuse bouche for the Bruckner.

During the following Ninth Symphony by Bruckner, I am reminded of the Hamburg memorial to Johannes Brahms. At Johannes Brahms square you will find a square block of stone, with four different faces from four different times of Brahms’ life on its four different sides. Tonight at the Concertgebouw, the faces do not represent the different stages of life of a great composer, but the evolving relationship between Sir Simon Rattle and his orchestra.

The first head of the block shows a young man finding his way in music. And a similar process of finding one’s voice is audible in the first movement of the Bruckner. Sir Simon and the orchestra are warming up to one another and working towards their distinctive style. At first, Rattle and his musicians attack the music in a more “conventional” romantic way. The strings are more luscious, the tempi are moderate, the arcs of suspense are accentuated and generously laid bare. Two musical forces are acclimating to one another, which allows the solo woodwinds to use that freedom and present outstanding colouring and solo work in the first movement. The movement is exciting, but more in the old-fashioned sense: Leave Bruckner be Bruckner, let the music happen on its own accord. Seeming all gentle and smiles, Rattle invites the listener into his musical temple.

Here is the next head on the block of stone, the face of a man who knows what he wants, has found has way in the music. Throughout the coda of the first movement and the entire Scherzo, we find a principle that dominated much of the Rattle-era in Berlin: An energy that is designed to overwhelm the listener to such an extent, that one literally cannot sit still. Back in the day, the young Anne-Sophie Mutter was in the audience for a Bruckner 7 conducted by Karajan and played by the Berlin Phil; she walked out in the second movement, unable to bear the tension. While everyone stayed at their seats here, the feeling was similar throughout the second movement.

The Berlin Phil wields incredible sonorous forces and the Bruckner symphony plays to their strengths. In his time as chief conductor, Rattle has tuned the sound of the orchestra, he has trained, strained and (at times) over-strained it. The sound is now on a different level than under Karajan: Going from the latter’s fine, satin and mellow bass, Rattle injected pure, pulsing and at times raw energy in the Philharmonic’s playing. Especially in the second movement, the orchestra heats up to temperatures that one cannot help but deem borderline. And, as is easily visible and audible, this is Rattle’s pleasure: He searches for that huge mass of sound, that is just about to slip beyond his control. The themes of boundary-pushing and riding on a knife-edge are prevalent in Rattle’s handling of the orchestra. This also means, that he occasionally pushes a little too far: The rhythmical coordination and Karajan’s evergreen, the synchronised pizzicato, are admittedly in peril on a few occasions in this movement.

Particularly in the early phase of Rattle’s reign as chief conductor, this theme of intentional musical awe was the subject of much criticism. Critics felt that Rattle’s direction, while often exciting and tuned for maximum effect, lacked substance and depth. To answer their concerns, you only need to hear it live. What else but substance could be found in that full-bodied, radiating and at times bittersweet orchestral sound? Rattle transformed the Philharmonic from a soft carpet of sound to a pulsing volcano about to erupt. To get there, Rattle put the strings into the forefront to transmit dense and dazzling bright colours and used the brass group (which has a lighter shade to its playing than most other traditional German orchestras) as a focal point in his orchestral sound solution. And this works wonderfully with Bruckner. In the trio of the second movement the traditional faster Rattle-tempo reminds the listener of the trio of Sixth, with harmonic and melodic flashes of lightning flying through the hall. This movement is the highlight of the evening, no doubt. It is easy to understand what Rattle does with the music here: You do not have to have heard this symphony 20 times to appreciate his intentionally overwhelming musical approach. The wave of music just collapses in on you. And, in that approach, Rattle stays true to himself: Music should be understandable and comprehensive to everyone.

Now for the next head on the Brahms memorial: An older man, at the peak of his abilities. Now that he has the listener captivated, Rattle goes that one step further, motivating the orchestra to overstretch what the music gives, focusing on sharper contours and rougher phrasing. Sporting his trademark extended lower jaw and exposed teeth, Rattle does not grant the listener one second of calm in the usually more reposeful adagio. While the strings’ melodies are written just as beautifully as those in the first movement, their bowings are changed to make the music less beautiful and allow the music to gravitate towards the Second Viennese school. Especially the (fantastic) double bass group disturbs the calm deep sea of Bruckner’s music. According to Rattle, the finale allows the adagio to become a different emotional force, a rougher, more remorseful music. Rattle can happily take the adagio to the extremes, as he has a new, grand finale to close the concert with in the fourth movement. This tendency developed especially in Rattle’s later years in Berlin, showcased in his Beethoven symphony cycle back in 2016.

The final face on the Brahms memorial in Hamburg features an old man with a grand, long beard, the final picture of a long career. Rattle cannot venture into the extremes as much in the lesser known fourth movement, so instead he proceeds to draw from all three of his previous “phases” and their ideas, to form a coherent, encompassing whole. Naturally, the movement has anything a good Bruckner finale needs: Three themes, a brass choral passage and (most importantly) an ending in major. Rattle turns this movement into a showcase for the orchestra, accentuating more beauty than in the adagio, but always with an eye for how he can show the orchestra’s dynamic force. The latter is particularly important, considering that more and more orchestras today feature a more subdued dynamic playing. A few weeks ago, in a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth in Rotterdam, I heard only one single real fortissimo. The Berlin Phil sports grand orchestral power in the finale, paired with the beautiful phrasing and moderate tempi of the first movement.

Under Sir Simon Rattle, the Berlin Phil have become a more complete orchestra. After 90 minutes, we have a final d-major chord and a finale that closes on both a symphony and an era. The relationship between Sir Simon and his musicians has been nurtured and developed for over 16 years, and it truly paid off tonight.   Yannik Eisenaecher     7th June 2018

Yannik Eisenaecher is the publisher of the blog FreshEarsClassics