Saturday, 4 September 2010

Prom 65: BPO/Rattle - Beethoven and Mahler, 3 September 2010

Royal Albert Hall

Beethoven – Symphony no.4 in B-flat major, op.60
Mahler – Symphony no.1 in D major

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)

To my considerable surprise, I realised that this was the first performance I had attended of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony. Of course, I have been to plenty of concerts featuring Beethoven symphonies and have heard the Fourth, studied the score, and so on – but this was the final member of the sacred nine I had yet to hear in the flesh. It remains a relative Cinderella; one would have had to make a concerted – pun unintentional – effort never to have been to a performance of the Fifth, for instance. By the same token, the B-flat symphony is hardly a rarity – so it was more a matter of chance than anything else. Still, an exciting prospect…

What, then, would I have thought had this actually been the first time of hearing? Not very much, I fear; I might, perish the thought, have wondered what all the fuss about Beethoven was. The introduction to the first movement began promisingly, almost Mahlerian in sound, though straining back toward Haydn: both proper and intriguing. It was a pity that a watch alarm almost immediately intervened, the first but certainly not the last in a series of audience ‘responses’. Unfortunately, this expansive introduction proved the most interesting part of the entire performance. The exposition moved between fleet – fair enough – and hard-driven. Where, I kept asking, was the anticipated bloom of the Berlin Philharmonic strings? The end of the development section acquired a degree of mystery once again, yet very little lived up to the performance’s early promise. Indeed, had I not known, I should have described this as an anonymous, albeit technically impeccable chamber orchestra rendition. The slow movement looked back again towards Haydn, but more successfully on the whole; here, Sir Simon Rattle’s reading sounded somewhat less constrained. It ‘flowed’, as it appears slow movements must nowadays, unless one is to be castigated as antediluvian. But there was some very beautiful woodwind playing to be heard beyond the mobile telephone calls and strange groaning noises, which recurred throughout the evening from somewhere in the audience. There remained little sense, however, that this was the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Rattle’s scherzo was strangely rootless, the BPO’s bass peculiarly lacking. It sounded as if Rattle would have benefited from a crash course in Schenkerian analysis – or, better, a little time spent listening to his greatest predecessor, Wilhelm Furtwängler. The finale brought some bubbly woodwind playing, from Emanuel Pahud, Albrecht Mayer, and the principal bassoonist. It was otherwise unsmiling however, alternating between the inappropriately brutal and the inappropriately featherweight. Rattle’s micromanagement of phrasing impeded any sense of a longer line. A bitter disappointment.

I had higher hopes of Mahler’s First Symphony, Mahler being much more Rattle’s thing than Beethoven. There were better aspects to this performance but, alas, there were worse too. Oddly enough, the introduction to the first movement, or rather the opening to that introduction, was again the most impressive part of the performance. Mystery was present – and a sense of how it might relate to the opening of the Beethoven symphony. Off-stage brass were striking, likewise the flawless playing of the on-stage horns. The exposition was light, beautiful in its way, but without the unforced naturalness of, say, Rafael Kubelík, still for me a first choice when it comes to recordings of this work. This Mahler sounded sophisticated but without that sophistication becoming integrated in a point of view. (Look to Boulez for that.) Though the woodwind birdsong was beautifully performed, it often sounded strangely pointillistic, again without that seeming part of an interpretative strategy – for instance, pointing the way towards Webern. Fluctuations of tempo sounded arbitrary: virtuosic rather than musical. Something had changed by the end of the movement, but it was not clear how we had got there.

The second movement brought at last a strong sense of rhythm – and of how it might relate to harmonic progression. Horns again proved superlative. Yet there still lacked a sense of orchestral distinctiveness. The trio was coloured by string portamenti and a great deal of rubato; unfortunately, it all sounded rather appliqué. At its best, there was a nice swing to the music; I just wished that Rattle would have been more content to leave it alone. This he did early on in the third movement, much to its benefit, the music gaining impetus properly. (And there was none of that nonsense of allocating the opening solo to the double bass section as a whole.) Rattle clearly needed to intervene more during the Klezmer sections, but to start with did not overdo it. Unfortunately, the music from the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen marked a seachange. Eked out beyond endurance, it was transformed into a weirdly distended parody – and not in a good sense. The movement became more and more stylised as it proceeded. A pity…

The finale was afforded greater heft, though the BPO still lacked a recognisable, German sound. It can still boast that sometimes, whether under conductors such as Christian Thielemann or indeed Rattle himself (even in Ravel). Not on this occasion, however. Rattle’s interventionism now assumed grotesque proportions, the slow passages taken so v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y that narcissism would have been too generous a description. Just because one can do something does not mean that one should. Mahler needs some formal assistance in this movement; here he received the opposite, cracks being exposed where one had never suspected them. Other material was excessively driven, crudely performed, exceeding what had been done to the Beethoven symphony. Victory should be hard won but not in the sense that applied here. I found myself simply wishing for the end, which at times seemed ever more distant. Another bitter disappointment.