How very fitting that the Berlin Philharmonic, an orchestra that claims to be made up of 128 soloists, should start Thursday’s concert and their European tour with perhaps one of the most soloistic orchestral pieces ever written: Ligeti’s Atmosphères.
All the musicians play individual parts, and seldom are two notes played together. The piece is very static, focusing on timbres and sounds of the orchestra, not paying much attention to harmony or melody. The Berlin Philharmonic played with an incredible precision, keeping the dynamics down throughout, yet still keeping the intensity needed to play such a piece successfully.
As the final notes of Atmosphères died away, Rattle kept conducting for several seconds, and then, without any pause to let the audience applaud, the ethereal first chord of the prelude to Wagner’s Lohengrin appeared, almost as if out of thin air. The effect was magical, as the silent dissonances and eventual silence of the Ligeti gave way to the shimmering, soft chords of the Wagner. It almost made the Wagner piece sound like an extension of the Ligeti. In the louder sections of the piece, the sound of the orchestra naturally grew larger and more powerful, but there was also a sense of transparency quite unlike anything I’d ever heard. The orchestra was balanced so beautifully that it was completely possible to discern almost all of the parts from one another, even when the whole orchestra was playing fortissimo.
Next was Debussy’s last orchestral piece, Jeux. The piece is tricky, with seemingly endless tempo changes, made even more impressive by Rattle conducting the score from memory (his music stand was removed during the applause after the Lohengrin prelude, and never came back). Overall I thought the piece lacked focus and a sense of direction, although a good few parts were done very beautifully indeed. This piece also featured some great woodwind playing.
The two last pieces before intermission, Jeux and the second suite from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, were originally conceived as ballets for the legendary Ballets Russes in Paris. Jeux was premiered in May 1913, just a few weeks before the scandalous première of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Daphnis et Chloé was first performed the previous year. The Berlin Philharmonic played the second of the two suites that are often excerpted from the ballet, and it was definitely the high-point of the evening.
The score to Daphnis et Chloé is widely considered one of Ravel’s finest, with lush orchestration predominantly for strings and woodwinds. The sound of the orchestra truly blossomed in this piece, quite unlike the others, with lush fortissimo chords spilling out over the audience and a gorgeous, homogenous sound in the strings. The piece’s many woodwind solos, especially the long flute solo, were expertly handled by the woodwind players. The final of the suite’s three movements, the “Danse Générale”, brimmed over with excitement, especially in the brass and prominent snare drum. The first half of the concert finished, as one might have suspected, with thunderous applause.
After intermission, the orchestra entered the stage, significantly fewer than they had been before intermission, to play the final piece of the concert, Robert Schumann’s Symphony no. 3 in E flat major. The first of the five movements sounded surprisingly dull; it lacked the creamy sound of the larger orchestra and the strings almost sounded a bit muffled at times. In addition, the horns, so very prominent in this score, sounded underpowered and dynamics were consistently around mezzo-forte and forte, never going especially soft or very loud. The first movement also lacked the all-important rhythmic drive that it needs.
Things got a whole lot better in the second movement, a lilting Ländler initially scored for low strings and bassoons, and then things just kept getting better and better. The absolute high-point in this symphony, at least for me, a trombonist, is the fourth movement. It opens with a solemn brass chorale for horns and trombones, and the alto trombone part is notoriously high, going up to a high E flat – especially testing considering that this is the first time the trombones play during the whole symphony. And in no way did the Berlin Philharmonic trombone section disappoint. The chorale was played gloriously, and the high E flats were incredibly well-placed and golden, even when played piano. The rest of the symphony was very well played, although I felt the brass could have played louder.
A very varied programme, obviously designed to show off the orchestra from its best sides; virtuosic chamber musical playing and a lush, homogenous sound that is still so transparent that the individual voices are possible to discern, that worked beautifully, especially for the first half of the concert. Although the Schumann was possibly less than ideal, it was still a thrilling performance, and I hope it won’t be long until we see the Berlin Philharmonic on a Norwegian stage again.
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