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Friday, February 24, 2012

Concert Review: A Grand Tour of the Gilded Age

Sir Simon Rattle brings the Berlin Philharmonic to Carnegie Hall
Black-and-white brilliance. Sir Simon Rattle in action.
Photo © EMI Classics.
Mention the Berlin Philharmonic to a classical music aficionado, and you'll get a dreamy response, with memories of floor-shaking fortissimos and the flexible, powerful army of musicians that can create liquid tones of light and shade and transport a listener to a state of bliss.

Sir Simon Rattle and the orchestra in question made a welcome return to the Carnegie Hall stage on Thursday night, with a program celebrating the rapid changes in music that took place at the turn of the 20th century. In his decade at the helm of this orchestra, Sir Simon has remade the orchestra into a lean, flexible ensemble, capable of playing even the most familiar music with freshness and energy.

The four works programmed were by four different composers from different countries. But they cohered into a potent artistic statement, forming a kind of mini-symphony when played over the course of the evening. That statement started with Emmanuel Pahud's flute, leading off Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. With this ten-minute work, Debussy has been acknowledged (for better or worse) as the composer who ended the spell of Wagner and paved the way for the 20th century.
This performance owed something to that German composer. The weary dream of the solo flute echoed passages of melting beauty in Parsifal: the sound of dappled light and softly breathing woods. Dreamy brass chords meandered into this forest of sound. An English Horn evoked a sad shepherd. And the music hypnotized, seeming to hang floating in the air as it wound to a soft close.

The "dance" movement as Antonín Dvořák's The Golden Spinning-Wheel, a late example of the composer's final style where symphonic structures were replaced by that newer form, the tone-poem. The Wheel is an effective symphony in minature, contrasting the gallop of horses through a Bohemian forest with the horrifying fate of a girl tortured and mutilated by her evil relatives. The Berlin cello section drove the piece forward, slowing for a central section that recalled the wide American vistas inspired by Dvořák's visits to the American Midwest.

The slow movement of this "mega-symphony" was Arnold Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht, played by the strings in the composer's expanded orchestration. Credit here goes to the razor-sharp string playing, evoking the drama of a man and a woman in the woods negotiating the future of their troubled relationship. Under Sir Simon's leadership, the tonal fabric was stretched to its limit, with delicate solos on the violins and violas leading towards a soft, transcendent close.

Many symphonies conclude with a theme-and-variations. In this case: Sir Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations, a kind of parlor game played by a huge orchestra. Elgar's original "enigma" has a meaning that has never been decoded by conductor, critic, or composer. But the opening theme was eloquently stated, and the tonal colors of the Philharmonic were fresh and bright. Sir Simon then launched into the astonish series of re-workings, re-orchestrations and rhythmic re-structurings. The 23 variations were divided into paragraphs of musical thought, with the whole flowing forward from his baton.

While the secret behind Elgar's musical riddle has never been cracked, it is known that each variation serves as a musical tip of the hat to all of the important people (and one dog) in Elgar's immediate social circle. As the work moved past the famous "Nimrod" variation, the orchestra began building up into a giant dance of joy. Each quarter of the ensemble was heard from in this muscular, good-natured performance, which was finally joined by the organ for a triumphant, final shout. That climax was fitting, as the last movement depicts Elgar himself.

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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.