Sir Rattle, orchestra harmonize beautifully


November 19, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Maybe there really isn't such a thing as a perfect performance, but I think I heard the closest thing to it when the Berlin Philharmonic paid a visit to the Kennedy Center Monday night. As a demonstration of collective virtuosity - the whole orchestra can turn on a pfennig - the concert would be hard to surpass. As a demonstration of intensely committed music-making, it will be hard to forget.

There are good reasons why this Berlin band ranks in the highest echelon of the world's orchestral institutions, and it sure was fun being reminded of them: supple, finely honed string tone; brilliantly controlled brass and woodwinds; spectacular responsiveness to the tiniest of technical details.

During the most glorious years of the philharmonic's history, those gifts were supplemented by inspired leadership on the podium, resulting in as much heart and soul as brain and brawn. The roughly three-decade era of Wilhelm Furtwangler, in particular, remains a peerless artistic benchmark.

The next three decades with Herbert von Karajan achieved legendary status as well, but, for some listeners, the Karajan years also represented a gradual emphasis of precision over expression. Since his death in 1989, the orchestra has been reclaiming its more personal side, first with Claudio Abbado as chief conductor and now, since last year, with Sir Simon Rattle.

The philharmonic's current tour offers American audiences their first in-person taste of the Rattle regime. On the basis of Monday's appearance, a co-presentation of the Kennedy Center and Washington Performing Arts Society, the Berliners seem to be enjoying this new partnership enormously.

The British conductor may never satisfy everyone, simply because he doesn't check his own personality at the stage door. His interpretations, even of the sacred, core German repertoire, are apt to contain strongly individualistic approaches to tempo and phrasing. And his ideas about programming come from a whole new galaxy, compared to his predecessors. Rattle seems to be doing just what his admirers expected him to do - fully respect the essence of this august musical organization, but shake things up a bit, too.

Evidence of that shaking came at the start of this concert in Heiner Goebbels' Aus einem Tagebuch (From a Diary), composed earlier this year. A dynamic force in German contemporary music, Goebbels composes out on a limb - on a tree of previously unknown genus. He makes use of familiar and unfamiliar elements, and then reinvents structures to house them, bending the mind and the ear in the process.

This 20-minute score, which calls for basses, wind instruments, percussion, keyboards, harp and pre-recorded sounds, has an underlying, almost techno pulse that generates waves of sound-bites (at one point, the basses seem to be reliving the opening of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony). The disjointed fragments, bursts of dissonance and raucous energy, and moments of eerie repose yield an experience that's downright funky - a word you would previously never utter in the same breath as Berlin Philharmonic. The ensemble gave the piece quite a kick.

Turning to more traditional fare, Rattle led a riveting account of Sibelius' Symphony No. 7. It unfolded as if on a single breath, evoking an array of naturalistic imagery - mountains, gorges, fields, even livestock - with terrific color and sweep. The strings summoned a glowing sound that seemed to well up from some hidden spring beneath the stage.

I only wish Rattle had called for more power in the very last notes of the Sibelius score. I had a similar feeling later, when he reached the end of Schubert's Symphony No. 9. But that absence of heaven-shaking finality was a tiny disappointment compared to the wealth of drama and lyricism Rattle drew from Schubert's music.

The palpable tension he created in the hall by elongating the pause of silence that interrupts the second movement; the impetuous, infectious way he made the Scherzo dance; the stunning control he exerted in the crescendos of the finale, slowly building each one to maximum impact - such things gave this war horse a bracing, illuminating freshness.

Throughout, the Berliners did not just articulate with superb clarity and cohesiveness, even during hairpin shifts of dynamics, but with expressive honesty and what sounded like unbridled enthusiasm.

If the early stage of Rattle's tenure are producing results this stimulating, the future should be downright epochal.

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