Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic open Beethoven cycle with a sublime “Eroica”

Wed Nov 18, 2015 at 8:05 am
Simon Rattle conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in Beethoven's First and Third Symphonies Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall.

Simon Rattle conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in Beethoven’s First and Third Symphonies Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall.

Few orchestra-conductor relationships today combine as much star power as the partnership between the Berlin Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle. The latter is one of the world’s great celebrity conductors, constantly in demand and a virtual lock to sell out an orchestra’s subscription series with a weekend of guest appearances.

As much as Rattle is a celebrity conductor, the Berlin Philharmonic is even more a celebrity orchestra. The intensity of interest surrounding their arcane maestro-selection process this summer reached the point of parody.

The excitement generated by the orchestra’s annual Carnegie Hall residency is no less fervid, particularly when they come sporting a program as massive as a complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies. The full binge will take five days, and Tuesday’s opening installment offered an extremely promising start.

Granted, the beginning of the concert itself was not so auspicious, opening as it did with a rather staid rendition of Symphony No. 1. In the first two movements, Rattle and the Berliners seemed less than fully engaged. The sound was surprisingly muted in the opening movement, and there was a general listlessness about the interpretation. The Allegro con brio section had only moderately more energy than the Adagio molto.

The Andante showed more aural definition at least, but it felt as though Rattle was concerned more with crafting precise sonic gestures than with truly shaping the music. Only once he reached the Menuetto did he finally begin to bring real vitality to his conducting. Though he allowed the integrity of the ensemble to get away from him slightly, the added fire, turning the closing bars into a dashing gallop, was more than worth the exchange. Similarly, the Finale did not exhibit the sort of clockwork precision that one would expect from the Berlin Philharmonic, but the extra muscle gained by sacrificing a little cohesion brought out the testy Beethovenian spirit in what is largely a dutifully traditional piece.

Whatever the shortcomings of the First Symphony, the “Eroica,” the evening’s only other item, was a stroke of brilliance. Rattle’s tempos were almost exactly standard, but the grandeur and nobility that he summoned out of the orchestra made the pace seem absolutely thrilling. The textures he chose to employ in the first movement were striking: many conductors, acknowledging the Classical roots of this seminal Romantic work, favor clarity of tone and choose to let the brightness of Beethoven’s writing speak for itself. Rattle dug in ferociously, asking his violins to play deep in the string to add a rough grain to the sound.

At no point in the Allegro con brio did the music’s energy stop moving forward. At major moments of transition, an essential impulse remained, even if it was just a single strand, holding on as the rest of a massive chord fell away. In the funeral march, by contrast, the pauses felt excruciating, voids of sound that desperately wanted to be filled by the next musical statement. The colors with which Rattle painted in this movement were varied and vivid, from dull, muted earth tones in the somber opening to intensely burning oranges in the peaks of raging grief.

The brief Scherzo charmed, opening with hushed, buzzing energy, an excited rumor before the sudden eruption of exuberance. The full, unbridled voice of the Berlin Philharmonic was nowhere more apparent than in the Finale, opening with a rushing torrent. The articulation of the primary theme did not pop as much as in many renditions, favoring instead wide, blooming strokes, but the playful demeanor of the music was not at all sacrificed. The ensemble in the winds nearly disintegrated shortly before the roaring coda–the only conceivable gripe in what was truly a sublime “Eroica.” If the rest of Rattle and company’s Beethoven cycle approaches this level of excellence, this week at Carnegie Hall is going to be memorable.

Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic continue their Beethoven series on Wednesday at 8 p.m. at Carnegie Hall, performing the Leonore Overture No. 1 and Symphonies Nos. 2 and 5. carnegiehall.org..

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