January 26, 2003

Rattle leads Berliners in Henze's new 10th, Stravinsky


Hans Werner Henze
Symphonie No. 10

Igor Stravinsky
Sacre du Printemps


Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle - conductor

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Rattle leads Berliners in Henze's new 10th, Stravinsky

by Nancy Chapple

Hans Werner Henze has links to both the Berlin Philharmonic, who premiered his Seventh and Ninth Symphonies in 1984 and 1997, and to Sir Simon Rattle, who premiered the Tenth Symphony in August 2002 in Lucerne. In fact, Rattle inspired the work, as Henze indicated in an interview: "When composing No. 10, I thought of Simon as a Lucifer, as a mensch with a pure and elegant English brain, with subtle hands and the sensory apparatus of a modern man in love with the world."

The agitated and restive first movement, Ein Sturm, began with a cymbal dipped in water, scales in the piano, the deep sounds of a bass clarinet. Small scale-like motives repeat, creating ecstatic waves of sound and release when they have calmed again. The orchestra shimmered with high strings and brass and occasional xylophone notes. Ein Hymnus is scored for strings alone, and moves slowly with intense vibrato. The cellos were seated within the orchestra (violas on the outside) and their beautifully played unisono passage rose from the middle of the stage. One arresting unusual touch was an exposed string bass solo on the instrument's highest notes. Both the second and fourth movements end anticlimactically with arched decrescendi, convincingly shaped into silence by Rattle.

The astonishing third movement, Ein Tanz, starts in the percussion together with piano and glockenspiel; later the 8 percussionists are supported by brass and basses. Repeated off-beat syncopations are in fact reminiscent of the work which complemented the Henze, namely Stravinsky's Sacre du Printemps. The excitement built up over many small motives in a rapidly changing meter. The instrumentalists were tremendously impressive. The fourth movement, Ein Traum, began with bass flute supported by piano; melodies played in the lower strings communicated a driving, dark message. In Henze's orchestra, the instrumental groups are not in opposition. Instead, sounds mesh: all the instruments together form one sound, despite the difference in register among, for instance, kettle drums, violas and glockenspiel. The graying and relatively traditional Philharmonic audience expressed genuine enthusiasm afterwards.

Sacre began with a most beautiful plaintive solo in the bassoon - and in fact the bassoonist was later invited to take the first solo bow. The piece started like chamber music: masterly soloists were given all the time in the world to build up a dialogue; their very grace notes were savored expressive elements in a larger line. The rhythm was extremely accurate; each long note was played to the full; each note after the beat came at precisely the right moment. Rattle is a very active presence on the stage: lanky, almost delicate, lots of graying curls, always in motion. The orchestra sounded fantastic. Despite the relaxed beginning, the tension quickly mounted. The first beats in the low strings in Spring Rounds went directly to the gut. Occasionally brass and winds did not seem correctly tuned to each other; at one juncture there was also a tuning disparity between solo flute and solo clarinet. Where Stravinsky wrote fortississimo, the hall's "rafters" (in the Philharmonie more like polygonal inclines) rocked. In the Sacrifice, the instrumental groups conducted a real dialogue. A soft passage with muted trumpets was played so delicately it seemed the instrumentalists were not on the stage. The occasional points of stasis provided a certain relief amid all the drive.

Rattle made Stravinsky and Henze feel equally modern - and approachable. The audience loved him for it. After several curtain calls, the orchestra gathered their instruments on a cue from the concertmaster and left the stage. But the audience cheered until Rattle returned, and he waved to the already empty chairs with a disparaging smile as if to say: "I couldn't have done it without them, you know!"

(This review originally appeared at www.classicstoday.com)