Rattle and the Berlin: One More Time


Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The West“First, we’ll take Manhattan. Then we’ll take Berlin.”

–  Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)

These words were ringing through my head the week before Thanksgiving as the Berlin Philharmonic of past and present took over my life.

On the weekdays, I heard the latest technological update of the Herbert von Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic 1961-62 set of the nine Beethoven Symphonies on a single Blu-ray disc, along with passages from their 1977 cycle. On Friday night (Nov. 18), I heard three members of today’s Berlin Philharmonic – an American, an Israeli and a Viennese – team up with violinist Ray Chen in some string quartet literature in the darkly-splendid-sounding new Musco Center for the Arts in Orange. Finally came the real thing Saturday night (Nov. 19) – the entire Berlin Philharmonic in person at Walt Disney Concert Hall, their last Los Angeles appearance with their lame-duck music director Simon Rattle.

Herbert von Karajan
Herbert von Karajan

But I have a full disclosure to make. I’m spoiled. Really spoiled. The peak concert experiences of my life were spent with the Berlin Philharmonic when Karajan was still alive to weave his spell. It was Oct. 1982 – four nights in Pasadena’s Ambassador Auditorium. Stravinsky’s Apollo and Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, Brahms Symphonies Nos. 3 and 1, Beethoven Symphonies Nos. 6 and 5, and Mahler Symphony No. 9 were on the programs. The orchestra sounded unearthly, playing with incredible intensity and power, and they weren’t even playing that loudly. You were thrown back in your seats with the G-force of a roller-coaster making a sharp turn.

I’ve not experienced anything like that since, even from this orchestra when they made return visits with James Levine in 1986, and then with Rattle in 2003 and 2009 – or when I heard them with Kurt Sanderling in the Berlin Philharmonie in Oct. 1990 just hours before East Germany went out of business. But you keep going whenever they announce that the Berlin is coming, hoping against hope that the magic of those concerts with Karajan will somehow return.

Simon Rattle (Steve J. Sherman)
Simon Rattle (Steve J. Sherman)

The lopsided program looked like something right up Rattle’s creative alley – Pierre Boulez’s relatively tiny, sparely-orchestrated, rigorously atonal Eclat as something to clear the palette with, and then Mahler’s gigantic, weird, clamorous, spooky, prophetic Symphony No. 7. The Seventh happened to be the piece of Mahler’s that fascinated Boulez the most, and I’m sure it was no coincidence that both Eclat and the Seventh contain parts for a mandolin player.

One thing about the Berlin Philharmonic of today has remained constant with the orchestra of 34 years ago; you cannot doubt their commitment to their work, These players, younger overall than those in the Karajan era, dig in with a physical and emotional intensity that you rarely see in America. They radiate a sense of massive strength; you could even feel this from the three individual string players last Friday. The brasses are a collective powerhouse, and they never miss.

Granted, there are ensembles in the world that are more unified than this group of self-governing musicians. But in the Mahler Seventh, particularly the outer movements, the rowdy, even perhaps unruly Berlin polyphony amplified the radical thrust of this music, the old structures buckling under the pressure of tonality at its breaking point. That was thrilling.

And yet, even though this was a better Berlin outing than the last one here in 2009 when Rattle and company skimmed smoothly over the surface of Brahms, I was not lifted into the air and transported. Part of that was, I think, due to Rattle, who for all of his formidable programming skills, has not grown very much as an interpreter over the decades. There was energy and optimism in Rattle’s outer movements, with this music looking forward to the then-new 20th century even as he, the Berliners and Disney Hall exposed the cracks in the structure. But he did a lot of fussy things in the middle movements that disrupted their flow. The deep voodoo and darkness and things that bump in the night; all of that was elusive.

It’s possible that Rattle’s best days are still ahead of him; he’s onlyrattlemain-595 61, young by conductors’ standards. But that, if it happens, will be with another orchestra, the London Symphony – and already his most cherished dream, a new London concert hall, was shot down by the government earlier this month.

What will Kirill Petrenko, Rattle’s newly-chosen dark-horse successor, be like? Hard to say; he’s a blank slate, although a video of the final minutes of Scriabin’s Poem Of Ecstasy – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DqVz7Y2k4YU – shows an impressive command which indicates that maybe the Berliners know something about this guy that we don’t. So we await the next Berlin visit years down the road to see if Petrenko can elevate the Philharmonic back on top of Olympus.