By Lawrence B. Johnson
NEW YORK — Drama coaches who work with actors on Shakespeare often talk about the muscularity of his language. In a sense so vivid that it seemed almost verbal, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra reveled in the muscularity of music during two recent concerts at Carnegie Hall.
Of the Berliners’ four different programs at Carnegie, I heard two. On Oct. 2, music director Simon Rattle and his potent ensemble delivered a thesaurus-challenging performance of Stravinsky’s complete ballet The Firebird — along with Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances — and on Oct. 5 followed up with a heady pairing of Schumann’s First and Second symphonies.
It would be missing the point, and the essence of the experience, merely to note that the Berlin musicians play with absolute precision of ensemble, pitch, and musical gesture. Those things taken together produce a quality of impulse, poetry, and drama that must be heard live to be fully grasped. The two concerts in view left no doubt that the Berlin Philharmonic represents the standard of the orchestra world today.
Whether any other orchestra plays at Berlin’s level may be moot. What’s certain is that its sonic fingerprints — that combination of sheen and agility augmented by sheer power — have no match. It was all there, every distinctive and disarming trait, in an exhilarating turn through Firebird that danced and shimmered even as it delivered sharp blows to the chest.
Berlin is an aggressive but also collectively articulate orchestra; the musicians were up in their chairs, leaning into their music. And that alertness translated into an acuity that told everywhere in Firebird — in eloquent woodwind solos, gleaming brass accents, and a motoric energy that sprang from burnished strings. The comparison to language was further urged in the incisive attacks Rattle drew from his musicians, no matter how complex the texture or how brisk the tempo — and Rattle has a penchant for speed. You could always hear the delineating consonants.
This decidedly virile sound, one could not help noting, was produced by an ensemble that now includes nineteen women — quite a progression from the contentious episode back in 1982 when Herbert von Karajan pressed clarinetist Sabine Meyer on what was then a male enclave, only to have the boys reject her at the end of her probation.
Musical muscle was fully on display in Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances (1940), his last completed orchestral work, closer in structure and spirit to a three-movement symphony than a dance suite. A sort of last hurrah by an unrepentant Romantic, the Symphonic Dances find Rachmaninoff in opulent splendor. The Berliners made luxurious work of it, driving home its powerful rhythms and lavishing a rich sound on Rachmaninoff’s grand frame.
The Schumann concert afforded a chance to hear live what Rattle and company had sent into the world earlier this year as the Berlin Philharmonic’s first independent recording project — all four Schumann symphonies in an elegantly produced package. Yet the Carnegie performances of the first two symphonies were impressive in ways that no recording can ever be: In this magnificent acoustical space, Schumann’s music resonated with the authentic grandeur, sparkle and shadow that come only in the live instance.
Like Leonard Bernstein before him, Rattle insists not just on the validity of Schumann’s oft-maligned — and oft-amended — orchestrations, but moreover on their singular correctness. He made two compelling cases here, starting with a robust and fleeting account of Symphony No. 1, which Schumann himself declared an evocation of spring.
Rattle’s clear, buoyant reading, quick from the start, simply banished any notion that Schumann’s score might be thick, murky, inexpert. The music bristled and sang — and, in the folksy scherzo, danced with a joyfully heavy foot that put one in mind of the same movement in Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony.
Except for the bleak, perhaps spiritually unmoored quality of its slow movement, Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 belies the mentally anguished time of the composer’s life in which it was composed.
Rattle led an infectious, animated performance that once again showcased the Berliners’ ability to flash without blurring the musical image. That said, the slow movement, gray and stark, seemed scarcely to move at all — one more testament, albeit ironic, to the Berliners’ virtuosic finesse and measured power.
Lawrence B. Johnson, editor of the performing arts web magazine Chicago On the Aisle, was for many years music and theater critic for The Detroit News. He has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and various national publications.