The composers Debussy, Dvořák, Schoenberg and Elgar and aren’t often associated with each other, but they featured together in the first of three concerts in Carnegie Hall with Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. The works on the program, it turned out, all dated from the 1890s and all were program music. But Rattle and the orchestra, while technically flawless, only seemed to connect with the material at some points.

Sir Simon Rattle with the Berliner Philharmonike in Carnegie Hall, New York, © Steve Sherman
Sir Simon Rattle with the Berliner Philharmonike in Carnegie Hall, New York,
© Steve Sherman

Composers of program music have to balance conventional musical forms with narrative demands. Some recount events through musical tone-painting, others offer more vague musical portraiture. For performers, the challenge is to tell a musical story to an audience who may or may not be familiar with the work’s inspiration. (In this case, it seemed particularly unlikely that many New Yorkers were conversant with the Czech poem that inspired Dvořák’s tone poem The Golden Spinning Wheel.) Sometimes familiar musical forms win out, such as in Tchaikovsky’s sonata-form Romeo and Juliet overture. Most of the composers on this program were less conventional.

For all his many virtues, Sir Simon Rattle is not a very dramatic conductor. His performances, particularly with the exquisite machine that is the Berlin Philharmonic, often have a polished sheen but not an enormous amount of momentum or spontaneity, the very qualities required to transmit narrative. Sometimes this austerity was welcome. In the program’s opening, Rattle’s interpretation of Debussy’s familiar Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (based on a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé) was seemingly inspired by the bare solo flute line of the opening (beautifully played, with sparing use of vibrato). Debussy’s atmospheric harmony and orchestration were less prominent than his use of melody and counterpoint.

Rattle has been a frequent advocate for Dvořák’s symphonic poems, this time choosing The Golden Spinning Wheel, based on a poem by Karl Jaromír Erben about a love triangle that is set right by a sorcerer in possession of the titular thread-maker. The program notes claimed that Dvořák’s Czech soul led him to create a piece “as far from Viennese classicism as possible.” In reality the form is a modified rondo, a form familiar from Haydn and Mozart. (Prague is not in fact very far from Vienna.)

But the extreme disjunction between the sections, as well as the unexpected order in which they recur, gives the work a strange shape. The chugging ostinato depicting the spinning wheel alternates with sections inspired by Czech dance music, along with others of yearning Romanticism. Rattle and the orchestra again provided a technically flawless account with burnished and perfectly balanced chords in the brass and pinpoint balance, never lapsing into sugary sentimentality. But the piece’s many contrasting sections felt like a randomly assembled parade, never gaining force or drama.

The concert’s low point came after intermission with Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night”). Inspired by a poem by Richard Dehmel about another love triangle, the strings-only work pushes the limits of chromaticism to an extreme that is alternately luscious and edgy. While the strings were beautifully blended and displayed an amazing range of colors, this performance never went beyond lush, with a flat and detached quality. Can a Verklärte Nacht that is never even a bit hysterical work? Based on this evidence, no.

Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations closed the program. Unlike the previous works’ poetic inspirations, each of Elgar’s variations depicts one of his friends (or, in the raucous eleventh variation, a friend’s dog). More conventional in form and material than any of the other works on the program, it was also by far the best part of the evening, with an intensity and excitement that had barely been hinted at up to this point. The orchestra played with flashy virtuosity in the fast variations, and in the slow ones (particularly the famous “Nimrod”) with a kind of unleashed focus and volume that had been absent from the Schoenberg. The work’s enigma is supposedly a familiar theme that inspired the variations (making its nominal theme actually Variation no. 1), but here, the enigma seemed to be what this piece offered the orchestra that the rest of the program did not.

The Berlin Philharmonic is doubtlessly one of the world’s greatest orchestras, and when they and their conductor really connect with their material you can tell.

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