Saturday, 2 June 2018

Rattle on fire, even if you can't hum Bruckner

British concertgoers had the chance, earlier this week, to bid farewell to the partnership between the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and it’s conductor since 1999, Sir Simon Rattle.

Two concerts at the Southbank Centre over two nights offered the hallmarks of Rattle’s tenure in the German capital – programmes combining classic works and new ones. The Other Half and I were fortunate enough to have been able to book decently-priced tickets just a few days earlier, having struggled to find anything that seemed affordable some months earlier.

The first concert saw the UK premiere of Hans Abrahamsen’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, followed by Bruckner’s ninth symphony.

The former was really short, but fascinating. The composer was influenced by Steve Reich in particular, and it certainly reflects such minimalism, while also involving incredibly complex rhythms – particularly in the third piece.

Understated in so many ways, it was a fascinating piece – and one that will make me look up the composer.

Bruckner’s ninth is … well, it was unfinished and it is big (arguably overlong) and is loud. Those were my impressions last year when we saw/heard Bernard Haitink conduct the LSO at the Barbican in the same work. Context: oddly (or perhaps not) that was just after my mother’s funeral. This concert came as I am arranging my father’s funeral. Which will doubtless ensure that it sticks in my mind in terms of this music.

Last year was a performance that seemed merely loud. This had far, far more nuance – though it’s still overlong as piece. I am not knowledgable about relative acoustics, so I cannot know whether those of the Royal Festival Hall or the Barbican are better.

But one thing was clear, though – the orchestra’s sound.

On both the contemporary and the Romantic, the Berlin’s sound was simply superb. British orchestras have historically been let down by the string playing, but have improved greatly in recent years. Yet when you hear a band like this, you experience something that is a step into something special. And shimmering strings are an enormously important way to judge an orchestra.

Rattle’s German years come with mixed results – his recording with the Berlin of Orff’s Carmina Burana is pretty dreadful – but he is happy to experiment with new music and with the interpretation of less-new music.

Classical music should not be an ant encased in amber – it needs the likes of Rattle to make it live in the here and now, so personally, I’m ready to deal with the negative results of that.

This Bruckner gave me a sense of the piece being worth the effort. It was also a good moment to remember that Rattle had, as a precondition of his appointment, ensured that all the musicians got a wage rise after years of declining pay; that he took the band into schools and that he gurned it into a foundation, to remove it from all political control.

Rattle might not be a Karajan (who could be?), but his legacy in Berlin will be a very long and important one. The English in particular might have a suspicion of anything intellectual/high cultural, but Rattle is someone we should celebrate and hopefully, his tenure at the LSO will help further boost classical music on this side of the Channel.

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