Is the Berlin Philharmonic Still “Great”?

By Sedgwick Clark

That’s a deliberately provocative question, of course. But when the best one can say about Carnegie Hall’s Opening Night Gala is that the scaffolding has been removed after three years, there’s a problem. The building’s elegant façade, glistening proudly in its new exterior lighting, looks simply gorgeous. It’s a necessary reminder that the beleaguered classical-music industry can still hold its head high. Lord knows such architectural stature is rapidly disappearing from 57th Street, what with that monstrous tin-foil phallus already erected across the street and more to come to the east and west.

In his review, the New York Times’s Anthony Tommasini referred to the Berlin Philharmonic, the evening’s band, as “great.” Who am I to disagree? But I have been hearing the Berliners for 35 years in this hall under the likes of Karajan, Abbado, Haitink, and its current music director, Simon Rattle, and I was shocked at the current state of the orchestra. The violas, cellos, and, to a lesser tonal extent, double basses—placed to the right of the conductor—had all the strength and projection of the BPO of yore, with total unanimity and purpose. But the rest of the stage was swimming in indirection. The violins were not obviously out of sync, but they rarely projected as a body, which is the same thing. The woodwinds played with character but rarely as an ensemble, and except for their biggest moments the brass may as well have not been playing. The Berlin timpanist used to be brutal, but the young fellow back there now mirrors the conductor’s indistinct beat.

For this opening week of October, the British conductor served up Schumann’s four symphonies, Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, Anne-Sophie Mutter in Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, Stravinsky’s complete Firebird, and a new work by Georg Friedrich Haas.

Opening night began with the Rachmaninoff, and I smiled in anticipation as the strings briskly invested their pp staccato eighth notes with wit and buoyancy. And then—and then—OMIGOD!—Rattle sat down on the first ff chords with elephantine emphasis, proceeding to eviscerate the outer movements’ rhythmic drive and hobble through the insinuating central waltz. The 1961 Kondrashin recording most successfully captures the demonic Romanticism of the composer’s nostalgic final masterwork. Rattle’s spongy accompaniment in the ensuing Bruch concerto was little help to Mutter, but she herself seemed unwilling to confront the music’s impassioned ardor. Gala programs are short these days, and Rattle led an abbreviated Firebird, beginning with a colorless Infernal Dance. One thing though: The Berliners can still play extraordinary pianissimos when asked, and Rattle asked for—and got—ridiculously ppppp strings leading into the horn solo that begins the finale. Ostentatious.

I also heard the concert that paired Schumann’s Third and Fourth with Haas’s dark dreams. To take the Berlin Philharmonic on tour and then reduce the strings to 12-10-8-6-5 takes a lot of nerve, and I found few moments to justify the dare. Rattle chose to play the original edition of the Fourth, which seemed in this performance, at least, more repetitive, structurally awkward, and amateurishly orchestrated than the version we know well. The Haas piece, commissioned by the orchestra and Carnegie Hall for this tour and placed on the program between the two symphonies, required the full BPO and could barely fit on the stage. It sounded fabulous, and Rattle, for a change, conducted with decisive gestures. What a difference!

And now, after all that, I was pleased to find Rattle’s leadership and the Berlin instrumentalists and vocalists exceptionally expressive in Peter Sellars’s controversial staging of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at the Park Avenue Armory, Lincoln Center’s initial White Light Festival presentation.

Tune in next week to read about an orchestra I heard the evening following the BPO Gala—an ensemble that played a truly “great” concert.

Comments are closed.