Kaboom – Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic at the Southbank Centre: Brahms

We’ve just returned from one of the two London concerts of Sir Simon Rattle’s final tour as the Berlin Philharmonic’s chief conductor. The evening was designed to showcase his time and achievements with his orchestra of the past 16 years (he has taken over the London Symphony Orchestra earlier this year and kept two hats on until now). Known for his love of and expertise with modern pieces, Rattle started the evening with the UK premiere of a piece by the famous, only 44 years old, Munich-born (like me!!), Berlin-based, German composer-clarinettist Jörg Widmann: ‘Tanz auf dem Vulkan‘ (Dance on the volcano), which had been commissioned by the BPO to mark Sir Simon’s departure, and only had its world premiere in Berlin three days earlier. Over the years, the conductor and the composer had collaborated on various occasions.

Widmann is known for his wit in how he composes, everything is how it is for a precise reason, never just to please the ear of the observer. At the same time nothing feels contrived or artificial or intellectually overburdened. He manages to combine any number of vastly different, sometimes outright opposing styles and influences from the past and present and build them into something new, consistent, enjoyably anarchic and surprisingly smooth. The music starts in big band style with mainly brass and percussion, without a conductor being present. The maestro only makes his appearance a few beats in, when he casually and with his hands in his trouser pockets saunters to his pedestal. In typical Rattle-fashion, he jokingly throws a dismissive glance over his shoulder towards the audience, before picking up the baton and getting on with it, triggering loud laughter from everyone. The conductor is being asked to leave again before the music stops, and he obliges, again in similar, rather amusing style.

The evening continues with the Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski’s Symphony No.3 from 1983, in many ways on the extreme opposite end of the musical scale. Instead of a quickly composed, 9-minute series of explosions where every last thing has been planned, we’re now dealing with a whole symphony that took ten years to complete and is often considered to be a masterpiece of so-called Aleatoricism, the opposite of having every last bit planned out, the introduction of chance and randomness into the creative process. There was something hypnotising and magic about certain passages, clearly the orchestra and conductor feel close to the composer.

After a twenty-five minute interim, the main part of the evening started. Now, as those of you, who occasionally stop by, know, I’m no fan of romantic music, but for some reason Brahmsfirst symphony doesn’t feel much like proper peak Romanticism to me yet. Even though he only finalised it in 1876, it is based on his drafts from 1854, during a time when his environment encouraged him to keep in line with Beethoven’s style, and a time when classical music had not been led to the verge of destruction yet, perhaps that’s why. I can’t find any of the annoying pompousness or kitschy feelings or new era of nationalistic, dictator-adoring, anti-liberal uber-humans in this symphony. It’s actually surprisingly pleasant to listen to. Nothing, in my view, compared with the other two of the ‘Three Bs’, Beethoven and Bach, or with Mozart, Haydn, Vivaldi, and the other all-time greats, but rather good. Brahms’ manuscript asks for a number of extreme and fast variations between loud and quiet, just in the style of Beethoven, and it is a pity that Rattle softens these passages, making them less extreme. Why, with all the brave, belligerent Berlin double basses?

I preferred Dudamel’s approach, who during a recent concert we visited (post here), did the opposite to another composer, Beethoven: make an already extreme piece even more extreme, but can’t really argue with perhaps the world’s preeminent conductor, I’m guessing Sir Simon knew exactly what he was doing and he just didn’t bother to let the Barbarians know. Fair enough.

Overall, it was a truly special evening of classical music performed by the best musicians this planet has to offer, parading the successes of a 16-year stint in Berlin, with, among others, the UK premiere of some German fireworks that, I’m sure, will soon find recognition among a much wider, global audience. It is amazing how the only other London farewell concert also featured a UK premiere (in that case of Hans Abrahamsen’s ‘Three Pieces for Orchestra‘ of 2014-17).

In any case, we’re so glad to have Sir Simon Rattle in town on a regular basis and will keep on reporting about his work with his new (and now sole) orchestra: the London Symphony Orchestra. Watch this space.

For a much more sophisticated review (which inspired some of our review), check out Colin Clarke’s brilliant article in Seen and Heard here. For another review of Sir Simon’s concerts, read our post here. For other culture, check out our posts about Wish List at the Royal Court, Art, the Play, at the Old Vic, Balenciaga at the V&A, MoMA at Fondation Louis Vuitton, or Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy of Art.

(c) Feature Photo, two photos of Royal Festival Hall: Southbank Centre, London; one of the photos of Sir Simon Rattle: (c) The Evening Standard, London; other photo of Rattle: (c) Limelightmagazine.com.au.

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