Friday, 26 November 2010

Berliner Philharmoniker with Sir Simon Rattle / Review

Esplanade Concert Hall
Tuesday & Wednesday (23 & 24 November 2010)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 26 November 2010.

Few orchestras have come to perform in Singapore with such a burden of expectation as the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, that any pre-concert hyperbole would have a hollow ring to it. Epithets such as “one of the world’s best orchestras” just does not seem to do any justice, and with at $680 a pop (the top-priced ticket), it had better be brilliant.

In its final leg of an Australasian tour, the German orchestra under chief conductor Sir Simon Rattle performed a mostly-Viennese programme on two sold-out evenings. Having no concertos on the programme was a bonus; good money was paid not to hear the orchestra accompany soloists. These precious minutes could not have been better spent on purely orchestral fare.

Haydn was the juicy opener on the first evening. Listeners might have lost count on his Symphony No.99 in E flat major, but this was no makeweight. The sound generated from a scaled-down band was full and beefy from the outset, an emphatic Beethovenian chord ushering in playing of both delicacy and refinement. This might sound paradoxical, but the music’s dynamics demanded playing from both ends of the spectrum, to which the orchestra duly obliged. Grace and humour, lightness and drive, were all part of the palette that made its Haydn alive and kicking.

Three Orchestral Pieces (revised 1929) by Alban Berg provided extremes of contrasts. Fast forward Mahler’s sound world by some twenty years and a world war, and one gets is angst compacted into unseeming angular forms. Bare percussion, a whiff of brass and woodwind, greeted a new world order of chaos and nihilism. Alternating between lushness and violence, the ensuing Reigen (Round Dance) and March built up in terrifying intensity, inexorably leading up to that most Mahlerian of dramatic devices, the hammer-blows of Fate.

Brahms’ sunny Second Symphony provided much familiarity but no contempt. Should one ever tire of old warhorses, the antidote was this performance. Perfection never seeks diversions, and it was a pleasure to behold a reading that simply had no weaknesses. From svelte strings, pristine woodwinds (with solo oboe as the shining standout) to brassy chorales, everything sounded as it was meant to be.

The gloom of the slow movement soon made way for the symphony’s most cathartic minutes, all judged to maximum impact. Yet neither exaggeration nor overstatement was necessary. Even in the finale’s rousing throes, the orchestra delighted shifting from sotto voce (a muted whisper) to full-throated roar in a matter of measures, making for an aural experience which the greatest of recordings can never hope to replicate.

Superlatives continued into Wednesday, the second evening. Although Russian music was never the Berlin Philharmonic’s strongest suit, its view of Rachmaninov’s late Symphonic Dances was polished to such a fine sheen as to defy most doubters. Exiled from his homeland, Rachmaninov’s aching nostalgia came through unequivocally. The first movement’s saxophone solo and quote from the First Symphony were delivered superbly, as was the second movement’s ghostly waltz. The most Slavic-coloured finale was stretched close to breaking point, and the clangourous close left several questions hanging. Did this music depict an outright triumph or a pyrrhic victory?

There was little to guess in Mahler’s First Symphony, that most exportable of showpieces of visiting orchestras. One marvelled at the fine degree of control in the audible opening, and its journey from a buzz of pianissimo to the gleam of a bright morning sun. The country dance of the second movement was suitably earthy, and if there were a minor quibble, the Klezmer-like episodes of the third movement’s funeral march could have been more unbuttoned, and less bloodless.

The finale’s trudge from the depths of despair to blazing redemption was deliberate, but one well worth waiting for. The brass had a field day, with the French horns holding court. The standing ovation and chorus of bravos that greeted its conclusion was the most spontaneous ever witnessed in this hall. On the strengths of what transpired over two glorious evenings, it was wholly and well-deserved.

Photographs courtesy of Esplanade Theatres on the Bay (close-up shots), Vincent Wang (sky shots) & PianoManiac (cheap shots).


kk said...

It was the first time I was sitting in the middle of circle 3.Noted the remarkable rich sound reaching. Is it the orchestra or the high position or the composition. I am an amateur and would like to know so that I can maximise my music enjoyment.

Chang Tou Liang said...

In Esplanade Concert Hall, the best seats are in Circle 1 (most expensive category) and Circle 2 (much cheaper). The best value is thus afforded in Circle 2 for orchestral concerts. Just bring along the opera glasses!