Sir Simon Rattle and Berliner Philharmoniker have already presented a complete cycle of Beethoven’s nine symphonies this Fall in Berlin, Paris and Vienna. They are in New York this week to perform the cycle on five consecutive days to a sold out Carnegie Hall. On the second evening, Sir Simon and his Berlin musicians demonstrated that the familiar symphonies can be appreciated repeatedly, not only for their musical genius but also for their ability to penetrate the human psyche in a variety of ways. With recent tragedies fresh in the memory, the cycle is a perfect vehicle to convey the enduring power of music to heal the soul.

Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker at Carnegie Hall © Rob Davidson
Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker at Carnegie Hall
© Rob Davidson

The concert opened with the infrequently heard Leonore Overture no. 1. Unlike the other versions of the overture that are often performed with Beethoven’s only opera Fidelio, the Overture no. 1 lacks a bombastic opening, but is more notable for its emphasis on understated melodies and overall cohesion. Sir Simon approached the piece with an emphasis on long melodies rather than choppy phrasing. Slow descending lines received particular care. Contrasting tempi and volume could seem a little exaggerated and heavy-handed in another conductor’s hand, but here they served to bring out subtle nuances hidden in this gem.

Sir Simon’s preference for long sustained lines and transparency of notes was a recurrent and unifying theme of the evening. His restraint on volume, especially of brass and percussion, was another. The effect was to create an impression of clear and lithe harmony that at times seemed weightless and ethereal.

The skill of the orchestra in responding to subtle cues from Sir Simon was such that every time a theme returned, as in the first movement of Symphony no. 2 in D major, there was subtle, yet distinct shifts in tempo, emphasis and coloring to renew the senses. This was a masterful way to sustain the attention of the audience and keep them engaged in every moment of the performance. The second movement of the symphony, a Larghetto, showed how Sir Simon was able to integrate each section of the movement seamlessly with not a millisecond's pause. This movement was a joyous cantabile, played with exquisite care and tenderness that showcased the flexibility of the orchestra.

The Scherzo: Allegro of the Second was an eclectic reading of Beethoven’s homage to Haydn, with somewhat exaggerated volume variation. It was a clever lead in to the final Allegro molto, where the woodwinds – and the astonishing first horn – shone with their impeccable phrasing and coloring. The symphony as a whole emerged as an endless variation of a few underlying themes and melodies, with just the right balance of each section of the orchestra.

There is not much one can say about Fifth Symphony that followed after the intermission. With woodwind and brass sections reinforced with a piccolo and three trombones, it was a feast for the ears, not only the always impressive strings, but an occasion for a renewed sense of awe for the skill and musicality of the winds and horn players. From the famous opening “knocking” notes, the orchestra played fast and furious and yet never seemed rushed or hurried. Textual clarity of the strings was never lost, and made even richer with full participation of the other sections. One heard notes and variations that one never knew were there as Sir Simon drew both a focused and yet expansive arc of music.

The oboe’s quietly sustained long notes, played by Jonathan Kelly, were especially memorable and effective in crucial transition sections of the second movement. The pizzicato of the quiet third movement, when it returned for the second time, was lighter, quieter, and subtler than the first time. In the last movement, Egon Egorkin’s piccolo was especially memorable for its delicate contribution that had no hint of the piercing and harshness of the instrument. Similarly, Wieland Welzel’s timpani demonstrated how warm and subtle the instrument could be played.

Sir Simon took all the repeats in the fourth movement, which added the musical tension leading up to the development and recapitulation. In fact, the gradual build up to the outburst of unparalleled joy of the finale was almost unbearable, and when it finally came majestically, the audience experienced once again the glory of Beethoven and his present day representatives, Sir Simon Rattle and his Berlin Philharmonic, in this magnificent performance. It cannot get any better than this.