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Saturday, November 12, 2016

Concert Reviews: The Children of Brahms

The Berlin Philharmonic explores the roots of atonality.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Sir Simon Rattle. Image © Berlin Philharmonic for the Digital Concert Hall.
Although the composer Johannes Brahms lived a long life, he went to his grave a bachelor and without issue. However, it can be argued that the composers of the Second Viennese School are in some ways his spiritual children. Arnold Schoenberg and his pupils Anton Webern and Alban Berg took Brahms' ideas to a logical extreme, with short, aphoristic orchestral pieces that themselves signalled a new kind of music. On Thursday night at Carnegie Hall, Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic offered an ambitious program at Carnegie Hall, placing all four composers side by side to see if this connection would become evident.



The first half of the program opened with some notes from Sir Simon. Addressing the audience, he noted that the Five Orchestral Pieces by Schoenberg, the Six Orchestral Pieces by Webern and the Three Orchestral Pieces by Berg formed a sort of cycle, bearing some similarity to works that Gustav Mahler might have written had he lived longer. He suggested that the audience approach the first half of the concert as if it were "Mahler's 11th...or 17th" and that they not applaud until the cycle of all 14 pieces was complete.

Starting with the Schoenberg pieces, the Berliners offered a superb and detailed account of these works. In their pages, musical ideas are stacked atop each other in living towers of sound. Rhythms and phrases jitter and jump about the orchestra, as instruments enter and leave. The overall impression is one of dense organization and highly compressed textures, serving the end of highly personalized expression: discord in the service of expressing those painful emotions that might otherwise stay in the subconscious.

If Schoenberg is terse, Webern is taciturn, with his works offering surges of sound and laser-like bursts. Placing these works between their bigger brothers by Schoenberg and Berg allowed them to speak even louder, with their shimmering strings and tinkling asides for celeste seeming all the more powerful when heard within a distinct musical context. The first of these lasts no more than a minute. The second had leapfrogging clarinets that led to a long, lyric line, shrieking brass and the pluck of strings, saying much in just 90 seconds.

The third is another short piece, with a chiming interval that suggests unsettled sleep and a nightmare to remember. The fourth is the most expansive of these works, a grim, slow-building funeral march driven by orchestral bells that treks through the low winds and brass in a steady, unrelenting pulse. English horn dominates the fifth, with textures recalling the most arid pages of Wagner's Tristan and a faltering rhythm in the piano. The sixth is a valediction driven by a last echo of the funeral bells, eerie and fading into silence.

Following the Webern, Berg's Three Orchestral Pieces seemed positively chatty. These use the orchestral palette at full throat with great roars of sound in the Prelude building to lyric flights and outpourings of emotion from the strings. Berg was always the most emotionally open of these three composers, and the shadow of Romanticism flies above the Round Dance that makes up the second piece. This movement seems to evoke a society dancing as the clock ticks down, a yearning for the world before The Great War when Europe was in a fragile state of piece.

Sir Simon and his players pulled out all the proverbial stops for the final Marsch, which starts with a mutter in the clarinet that yields a relentless rhythm that quickly infects the rest of the orchestra. The relentless pulse attacked the senses, moving through woodwinds and brass. Finally the percussion entered, with timpani, gran casa and tam-tam deployed with devastating and overwhelming force. This was the strongest possible finale, and the whole a coherent argument for Sir Simon's idea of presenting these fourteen works as a cohesive unit.

The heavy percussion was quietly packed away for the second half, but the new musical context made one hear Brahms' Second Symphony with different ears. The first movement, with its perpetual argument between the opening theme and the famous lullaby subject was now much more than an exercisie in classical form as Sir Simon and his players penetrated to the inner meaning of this music. The slow second movement continued in the same vein, with its sad central theme leading to an outburst of sound in the brass, the moment that may have most clearly influenced Schoenberg and his disciples. The bright rhythms of the third movement and the relentless Rondo made even more sense: the dark night of Brahms' soul had finally passed and now it was time to celebrate. 

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.