Sunday 4 September 2016

13 years on, Rattle and the Berlin Phil back at the Proms

In some ways, Sir Simon Rattle’s Berlin adventure has run in parallel with my own engagement with classical music. We’re not totally alike – he’s a hugely in-demand musician touring the world with some of the planet’s finest musicians; I didn’t get out of bed today until half 10 and haven’t so far left the house – but his first visit to the Proms with his Berlin band came as I was just falling in love with the sound of an orchestra, and I’ve tried to catch his Proms visits ever since. It was with some alarm, while queuing on Prince Consort Road under a grey London sky, that I realised that that first Rattle/BPO visit was in 2003, 13 years ago. Still, the sound of a mobile phone cutting across the opening bassoon solo of The Rite of Spring is still fresh in the memory.

This year, he brought a pair of concerts that seemed to mirror the programming concerns of his two 2003 Proms. Prom 64 (September 2nd) weighed heavily under the mass of Mahler’s difficult Seventh Symphony, preceded by Pierre Boulez’s Éclat. This 1965 piece shimmers and judders with a fluid discourse of piano, a smattering of orchestral instruments, melodic tuned percussion and mandolin and guitar. The way Boulez’s limpid textures flow and stop, seeming to hang in the pauses like a freeze-framing of rapid nature, is entirely his own, and the handling of colour is very impressive, but for a man held by some as the defining voice of post-war classical music, Boulez’s insights seem slight to me. As someone who once covered an very long weekend of Boulez (including anexcellent Q&A with the man himself), I feel I’ve heard enough to satisfy myself that I don’t hear anything other than technique and aesthetics, nothing of the grab-you-by-the-collar immediacy of Xeankis or Ligeti  or (to further compare apples and oranges) Lutoslawksi. The fact that I feel quite so nervous writing this reflects the extent to which some in the contemporary music world would disagree.

But as a piece of programming, Éclat made perfect sense. Mahler’s Seventh also features guitar and mandolin, and Boulez’s own advocacy of Mahler was undoubtedly very important. There’s also a sense that the scale and the particulars of the Seventh must give conductors as many sleepless nights as must the prospect of tackling one of Boulez’s orchestral scores, because the Seventh is an ungainly beast that left even Mahler authority Deryck Cooke scratching his head. Essentially, it doesn’t offer the same kind of titanic emotional journey found in the Sixth or the Ninth and ends up with a rather silly sounding finale that must give conductors nightmares. Rattle played the whole thing pretty fast and pretty straight, not pretending there was any hidden depth beyond the surface drama of the first movement or the atmospheric landscapes of the central three. Mark Valencia summed it all up very well here.

The following evening, rain kept down the queues and got me to near the front of the arena for a much more satisfying aural treat. Rattle brought a new piece by Julian Anderson (who had to climb under a barrier to reach the stage and shake Maestro’s hand), an entire set of Dvorak Symphonic Dances (too much of a good thing by some way) and Brahms’s Second Symphony. The Brahms brought out the best of the Berliners’ playing (though a moment of miscoordination in the finale had Rattle nervously trying to pin down the beat) but I felt the momentum ebb away from the first movement and, while beautiful, found his attempt at Brucknerian monumentalism in the second rather distancing. Still, there’s a sense when Rattle’s in the hall that this is the Proms at its best, and it will be a shame if, given his looming move to the LSO, it’s his last with the Berlin Phil.

To finish with an aside, the issue of applause is always a tricky one, and I may one day put down my own thoughts in writing, but one audience member hit a new low but shouting “Bravo” and applauding loudly as the Berliner’s ploughed into the final chord of the Brahms. There are many words one could use, but arrogant and rude are the two that I’ll stick with for now.


David said...

You probably know I can't agree about the symphony itself - it's always fascinated me and I think I know what conductors can do to make it work. Abbado always did and Rattle, with a lighter touch, does so too. Uniquely, because I don't like a lot of his Mahler, least of all those movements like the Adagio of the Third where he can't provide the longer line...

Andrew Morris said...

Thank you for your comment! I must say, in the weeks after this, I've found myself turning the music over in my mind and wondering if there might be more validity in the not-a-titanic-emotional-experience notion of this big symphony that is just more difficult to comprehend. Maybe, like life, it doesn't all need to connect in the way that, say, the Sixth does.