The Berlin Philharmonic in Davies Symphony Hall
December 2nd, 2009
By Father Basil De Pinto
For over a hundred years the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra has been a touchstone of musical excellence. Despite wars, economic turndowns and internal squabbles (women were only admitted as playing members fairly recently), this has been a giant of the symphonic world with few peers and fewer rivals. Its two concerts at Davies Hall last month under music director Simon Rattle – I heard the one on November 21 – displayed the orchestra’s ongoing mastery not only of the standard repertory but of more recent works as well.
The Philharmonic was long noted, under Herbert von Karajan, for the silken sheen of the strings and the glowing sound which sometimes made even the spikiest of scores seem like a like a luxuriant musical featherbed. Under Mr. Rattle (do the players call their British leader Herr Rattle?) the orchestra has lost none of its smoothness but there is a brilliance and vitality to the playing which serves it well in the music of a modernist bent.
Arnold Schoenberg wrote his Chamber Symphony No. 1 in 1906, just as he was trying to shake the grip of 19th century romanticism, which he had already mastered, to make his mark as the definitive voice of modern music. As the name indicates he wrote Chamber Symphony for fifteen solo instrumentalists and it was a marvel of clear, singing lines. Many years later the composer brought out a new version for full orchestra, which the Philharmonic played on this occasion. It seems like a different piece of music, bigger and richer in sound, but lacking the clarity and concision of the original. It has become an enjoyable showpiece for a great orchestra, but this is a clear case of less is more.
With the Brahms Second Symphony the orchestra let the audience revel in the breadth and power of its magnificent sound while paying its dues to the wonder of the last master of the classical symphony. After struggling for years to write his First Symphony with what he felt was the terrible burden of following in Beethoven’s footsteps, Brahms was able to relax and write in his Second music that maintained the rigor of classical form but allowed his warm, genial temperament to shine through.
The second movement, for example, starts with a serious theme that never turns heavy – and how the chorus of Berlin cellos showed their song-like beauty at this moment. Likewise at the beginning of the third movement, Brahms’s marking is so apt: gracious, practically the definition of lilting music.
The finale was an object lesson in music that is powerful but not overpowering, what Gerard Manley Hopkins called “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing.” There was never any bombast but a fullness and richness that came from players and conductor in total harmony and in service to the music.
To end with the beginning, the concert opened with the Prelude to Wagner’s Meistersinger. It is somewhat frustrating for an opera lover to hear this music cut off from the ensuing chorale in honor of St. John the Baptist that follows when the curtain rises. But such quibbles fade when one hears this immense symphonic composition played as it could never be done in the opera house with its much smaller space than the concert hall stage.
The opening, possibly the most famous C major chord in all music, announced a performance of bright light and joyous affirmation. This was, as George Solti once said, immodestly, of one of his own performances: Wagner never heard it so good.
Father Basil De Pinto is a frequent contributor on the arts.
Editor’s note: The Berlin Philharmonic’s recent American tour included concerts in a handful of U.S. cities including New York, Boston, Chicago, Ann Arbor, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
From December 4, 2009 issue of Catholic San Francisco.