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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Concert Review: Composer, Interrupted

The Berlin Philharmonic plays Schumann and Haas.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Sir Simon Rattle makes a mysterious gesture.
Photo © 2014 Berliner Philharmoniker
Although Robert Schumann lived and wrote 150 years ago, his symphonies are still fresh and revolutionary, especially when conductor and orchestra choose the original orchestrations over the composer's later revisions. On Monday night at Carnegie Hall, Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic concluded their season-opening four-concert stand with Schumann's Third and Fourth Symphonies, bookending a new work by composer Georg Friedrich Haas.

Schumann's symphonies are numbered out of order, and the unrevised version of the Fourth is really his second actually completed just after the Spring Symphony. (The revised version, not performed here, was published after the premiere of the Third). This early work was a radical experiment in form, with four distinct sections played as one continuous movement--an idea borrowed later by composers like Liszt and Sibelius. Here, Schumann's original concept emerged in bold colors, with the start of the Allegro seeming to leap forward under Sir Simon's baton. The transition to the second "movement" was a smooth one, with Sir Simon guiding the players into the brass chord that starts the song-like Romanze.

This was followed by one of Schumann's most compelling dance movements, evoking the Beethoven of the Ninth symphony with its repeated figures and constant off-the-beat chords for brass, strings and timpani.  The finale, played slow then faster and faster, was almost like the overture for a lost opera, playful with voice-like writing for the lower woodwinds and horns.

The Schumann-a-thon was interrupted by dark dreams, an orchestral work by contemporary composer and Columbia University music professor Georg Friedrich Haas. Using a vast array of instruments, microtones and a preference for repetitive slabs off sound, this work sounded like a journey through a haunted mind. Like a nightmare brought to fitful life, the orchestra would stop and veer in a new direction, with Mr. Haas adding clipped, deliberately off-the-beat percussion to washes of keening violins and the stentorian groan of the contrabass tuba.

The concert (and the cycle) ended with the Third Symphony (Rhenish) which stands apart from its brothers in a number of ways. Not counting the revision of the unsuccessful Fourth this is the composer's final symphonic statement. It is also an occasion piece, written to celebrate the composer's appointment to the post of music director in Düsseldorf. Finally, it approaches the territory of Beethoven's Sixth in its depiction of a particular locale, in this case the great Rhine river and the mighty edifice of Cologne Cathedral in its first and fourth movements.

Although this performance of the Rhenish opened with warm strings and a bracing fanfare from the Philharmonic horns, the symphony lacked the final degree of thrilling energy that infuses the very best playing of this work. Sir Simon and his orchestra sounded like they knew they were in the last mile of this two night marathon, and their playing, while of the very highest tonal quality, sounded almost as if the ensemble were using an autopilot to navigate this familiar opening movement.

The two movements that make up the central part of the Third Symphony are a charming, lyric scherzo, almost a Ländler with the cellos leading the stately dance. A languid slow movement, hesitant and requiring the very finest tone from the flutes leads the way for the majestic fourth movement, the depiction of the famous cathedral and specifically the elevation of Archbishop von Geissel to the rank of Cardinal. Here one can hear the inspiration that led to the music of Wagner and later Bruckner, with slow majestic chords descending over a rising tide of horns. After this, the jubilant finale is just wrap-up, though an ending played with purpose and uplift by this stellar ensemble.

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