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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.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Concert Review: Dance Fever

The Berlin Philharmonic plays Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Berlin Philharmonic music director Sir Simon Rattle.
Photo © 2014 The Berlin Philharmonic.
Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall was the opening gala, with red carpet, superstar violinist (Anne-Sophie Mutter) and a truncated one-act concert before a glittering crowd. Thursday, however was the real opening night, the first repertory concert of the season with the Berlin Philharmonic. This concert featured a reprise of the Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances, paired with a complete performance of the full 1910 score of Stravinsky's Firebird.

It is an unusual experience to hear the same major work two nights in a row, particularly when that work is the Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances, the last of the composer's works. The Symphonic Dances were actually composed at Rachmaninoff's estate Orchard Point (in Centerport, New York) when the exiled Russian composer was slowly dying of the cancer that took his life in 1942. Thursday night's performance was heavier-footed and even lumbering, with Berlin music director Sir Simon Rattle taking pains the highlight the descending Dies Irae theme that permeates all three movements of this work.

Each of these three dances is in standard "scherzo" form, with an opening theme, a contrasting middle section and a return of the opening theme. But it's in the first movement's long coda that the Dies Irae first appears, almost hidden in a set of descending arpeggios played by the strings. Rachmaninoff's ghostly woodwinds in the central movement evoked the spooky world of the Schattenhaft movement in Mahler's Seventh and the ferocious finale continued the descent with the reappearance of the doom-laden theme in the brass section.

If the Rachmaninoff ended in the abyss, Stravinsky's Firebird provided the audience with a guide out of the murk. The Berliners gave a compelling performance of the complete score, starting from the murky figures for low strings at an almost inaudible level, the audience settling and straining to hear. The entry of the title character was evoked by English horn and E Flat clarinet, two diametrically opposed instruments that nonetheless worked in close concert.

As the work moved forward, Sir Simon was a sure guide through the dissonant, sometimes jarring chords and voicings that the young Stravinsky chose, illustrating that this score stands on a knife edge between the legendary late-Romantic stylings of Rimsky-Korsakov and the stark modernism that would become Stravinsky's trademark in the 20th century. With raw sinew and precise string playing, the Berliners led the way into the lush Round Dance that marks the work's center, with French and English horns trading solos. Then it was the time for the entry of Kaschei and his daemonic retinue, announced by Berlin trumpet players stationed in the Second Tier.

In a full performance, the explosive Dance of King Kaschei becomes a payoff, a needed release of tension built up in thirty minutes of development. Sir Simon made this kinetic section live, breathe and swing, with the blows of kettle and bass drums serving as punctuation for the brass playing. The dream-like section that followed was hushed and mysterious, not as drawn out as Wednesday night's performance. The horn solo and closing fanfare that ended the piece sounded different too, played in context one can hear how this work builds to that blazing finish.

Following the tumultous reception, Sir Simon turned to the crowd. "Well," he began, "shall we play something else?" The conductor settled on the Intermezzo ("The Journey to Le Havre") from  Act II of Puccini's Manon Lescaut, reasoning out loud that "only Puccini can follow Stravinsky." Whatever the logic, it was a perfect ribbon for the concert, played with warmth and intensity and reminding listeners that for all their concert-hall virtuosity, the Berlin Philharmonic is also one of the world's great orchestras for playing operatic music.

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