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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, November 20, 2015

Concert Review: The Duel of the Fates

The Berlin Philharmonic plays Beethoven at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Sir Simon Rattle leads the Berlin Philharmonic.
Photo by Sebastien Grébille © 2014 The Berlin Philharmonic.
The Berlin Philharmonic has long enjoyed a sterling reputation as the crown jewel of German orchestras, helped by its location in that nation's capital and its hefty recorded catalogue under a succession of legendary music directors. Sir Simon Rattle is getting ready to wrap up his term as the orchestra's leader. And what better way to start his farewell than with all nine Beethoven symphonies, presented in a five-night marathon on the hallowed stage of Carnegie Hall? The Berliners took the stage to warm applause, with a packed house gathered to hear this venerable orchestra in the bright acoustic of Stern Auditorium.

Beethoven was a perfectionist. He wrote, rewrote and repeatedly revised Fidelio, the prison escape opera that remained his lone contribution to the stage. He even wrote four different overtures to the work, each exploring a different aspect of this thrilling and deeply humanist drama. Leonore No. 1, as it is commonly known was the second of these overtures to be written. Discovered after the composer's death, it remains the least played and least known of these four works, but in some ways is the most rewarding.

The overture gave good indication to Sir Simon's approach to Beethoven, a brisk and pared-down approach that owed something to period performance practice. and something to the rich tradition of German symphonic performance. Tempos were moving but not rushed, with particular eloquence coming from the woodwinds. Sir Simon brought forth a vigorous and bursting energy from the strings, underpinned by the timpani (played with hard sticks) and the potent Berlin brass.

Although the Eroica Symphony launched Beethoven's most fertile creative period, Symphony No. 2 is the sound of the composer plotting, planning and firing the first shots in his forthcoming musical revolution. The first movement was filled with power and rich good humor, with the Berlin players sounding downright chipper as they brought this familiar and yet not quite famous work to light for their listeners.

The softest, slowest passages had the most magic, with Sir Simon putting an almost impressionist sheen on the quietest phrases. The Adagio built with further eloquence from the winds giving way to a wall of strings and brass, with the big climactic moments ringing out from the full band. The loping Scherzo was rhythmically taut with its folksy stopped chords evoking a rustic celebration. The steeplechase finale raced along, with its tricky rhythms and changes charging to a bold and cheerful finish.

The Fifth was more problematic. This work's  very reputation and familiarity can be an obstacle to interpretation. The famous staccato opening seemed fast and slightly out of focus. The Allegro con brio was very fast indeed, with the highlights being the numerous little solo cadenzas (for horn, oboe, bassoon, etc) that pepper the work. Sir Simon led the movement almost as if it were a concerto for orchestra, letting the high quality of his individual players make their own statement.

The slow movement was profound with a sense of resignation. Its heavy, trudging tread led to the scherzo with its dogged march. Here, the fugato-like passage for strings providing contrast to the relentless rhythm that rang out in the brass.. The horns sounded simply heroic here, carrying the weight of the work on their big shoulders. The transition to the fast finale was played attaca, with the join imperceptible and perfectly done. This optimistic close was interrupted for a moment by the plucked reprise of the march theme before yielding to a final jubilation: Beethoven's well-earned triumph over tragedy and fate.

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