Prom 55: Berlin Philharmonic / Rattle

Vanity, glory and a beautiful noise

Edward Seckerson
Thursday 04 September 2003 00:00 BST

Call it cheeky or just plain coincidence, but Simon Rattle's first Proms appearances with the Berlin Philharmonic since becoming their chief conductor and artistic director were dominated by three of Herbert von Karajan's favourite party-pieces. The effect was spooky, not so much for the differences but for the similarities. You would expect to hear a very different sound from that lodged in the memory from all those years ago. So much about the orchestra has changed since then and the inquisitive thinking, to say nothing of the attitude, that characterises the work of the new man in charge will surely take them places they've never been before.

And yet there were pages here that prompted instant recall of those distant days - a homogeneity, a blend, that I hadn't associated with Rattle before. Maestro Karajan always believed that his influence would outlive him. It sounds as if he was right.

The opening of Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta was pure Rattle, it has to be said - a muted string sound so rarified and so hushed that we almost have to strain to hear. The fugue unfolded with eerie fascination its legato strands, so seamless as to be almost indistinguishable from one another. And then as the crescendo took hold, the cushioned effect of the playing began to remind me of the Karajan sound. There is weight and a magnificent depth to the Berlin strings, but little or no edge, not even under pressure of attack.

So there was beauty to spare and - at the heart of the creepy slow movement - a chill beyond anything that Stanley Kubrick imagined in The Shining. But the folksy fiddles of Bartok's all-dancing finale hailed from town, not country. Urban sophistication ruled here.

And it was that same raw primitivism that I missed in Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Ironically, that ubiquitous symbol of urbanisation - the mobile phone - rudely sabotaged the opening with its trashy counterpoint. Rattle rightly stopped dead in his tracks, meaning that his poor first bassoon had to repeat the nerve-wrackingly high opening solo. With the germination of these opening pages we entered the auditory equivalent of a lush rainforest. Only the freakily high E-flat clarinet seemed to cut through the well-modulated polyphony. It was a fabulous noise, to be sure, and for once the full weight of the Berlin strings ensured an abundance of harmonic detail in relation to, but at the expense of, the dominant winds - especially trumpets and horns, which were kept at a safe distance from my seat in the hall. The lid never really came off the pressure-cooker.

Then came a sign of how the Berlin repertoire will broaden under Rattle. Gyorgy Ligeti's Violin Concerto is quite simply one of the most fertile and beautiful pieces of the last half-century and Tasmin Little did its zillion notes proud. It's like no other solo concerto part ever written, being at once a part of, but removed from, its surrounding texture, which shimmers and twitters and flickers with intrigue. It's as if we've left the earth's atmosphere. Ligeti the cartoonist is much in evidence - a quartet of ocarinas appears like lunar visitors - but so, too, is the big-hearted compatriot of Bartok.

The new piece in Rattle's second programme brought us down to earth with a bang. Heiner Goebbels' Aus einem Tagebuch (From a Diary) might serve as a kind of urban soundtrack to our impatient times. An intricate stream of "samplings" from a single keyboard provides the impetus for what is essentially a "big band" sound. It's almost jazzy, almost funky - would that it were wholeheartedly either. The "new music" packaging seemed almost an incumbrance.

Strauss's vain and glorious Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life) was very much the "new music" of its day. Its famous "battle scene", pre-dating The Rite of Spring by a decade, can still sound astonishingly radical. Rattle chose to curb its excesses in ways suggesting that Strauss's "critics" (wickedly caricatured in bickering woodwinds) were easily routed. Otherwise it was, well, vain and glorious - sensitively shaped, exquisitely played, apart from the final chord, which faltered inconclusively. A lone booer, for whom the performance was apparently not vulgar enough, broke the silence with some vulgarity of his own. Plainly, it's not just mobile phones we need to eradicate.

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