October 30, 2003

Rattling through a Hungarian desert and a German hoe-down

Bartók, Ligeti and Beethoven with the Philharmonic


Béla Bartók
Music for String Instruments, Percussion and Celesta - Sz 106
György Ligeti
Violin Concerto
Ludwig van Beethoven
6th Symphony in f-major op. 68, Pastorale


Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle - conductor
Tasmin Little - Violin

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Rattling through a Hungarian desert and a German hoe-down

Bartók, Ligeti and Beethoven with the Philharmonic

by Nancy Chapple

Sir Simon Rattle is simply on top of the world because he has the best, most responsive instrument imaginable to bring his musical ideas to life: that was the impression at Thursday's Berlin Philharmonic concert featuring Bartók, Ligeti and Beethoven. And Berlin knows there's something hot going on: tickets were checked twice, as people apparently could otherwise have been caught sneaking in to snap up Bartók illegally or from better seats than they'd paid for.

Most astounding at first in Bartók's Music for String Instruments, Percussion and Celesta: the dynamic range, the nuanced colors in soft parts, starting with muted strings in the first movement. The Allegro was full of springy energy, with sharp upbeats; details like the counterposed groups of three eighth notes in a 4/8 context were crystal clear. The Adagio was truly spooky, like fleeting glimpses of lizards on a desert cast in faraway light. The folk songs of the fourth movement were both charming and intoxicating - and the wild cries that then broke out all the more unsettling. Typical of Rattle's way of building tension: growth to a high point over a huge dynamic range, and again in the last movement, a decrescendo so organically well timed, so inherently right, that we're hit right in the gut.

Tasmin Little played György Ligeti's Violin Concerto (1990/1992) this summer with the Phil and Rattle at the Salzburg Festspiele and the Proms, so they know each other. With its parodic passages, it does feel like Ligeti sometimes thumbs his nose at his listeners and their expectations. And the audience was visibly twitching in their seats with Ligeti's intentionally smeary tuning: bent pitches in the winds and the natural harmonics in the brass, and also with the chorale passage for four ocarinas. The work seems ideally written for violin: open strings open the work in a mesmerising way, long lyrical passages are played high on the E string. The falling lines in the Intermezzo's come un cataclisma were beautifully energetic. Ligeti encourages the soloist performing his work to compose her own cadenza using elements of all five movements, and Little's own cadenza was impressive in its virtuosity and sweep. Her long shimmering blue dress à la the Rainbow Fish added to the show.

Rattle favored a crisp, sharp staccato in the strings in Beethoven's 6th symphony, the Pastorale. The incredibly warm sound in the cellos and basses set the mood, providing rich support to the chords. Overall, the tempi were constantly in motion, never static. Rattle allowed lots of time for transitions, savoring them, moving us gently to something new. Modulations in both the first and the last movements were breathtakingly beautiful - as if we had slipped into a new key and were surprisingly bathed in a new light. The Andante molto mosso gently spun a background tapestry on which the winds then blossomed; the bassoon was able to play his melody incredibly softly. The middle part of the Allegro is the kind of passage where Rattle lets all the stops out: the rustical farmers let it all hang out, with the basses crunching at the frog, and brassy, bold horns. The storm was electrifying - one could feel the air crackling.

Rattle conducted both Bartók and Beethoven by memory. This seemed to free him completely; he concentrated on drawing magical sounds out of his super musicians. He rarely gave the beat, but just moved and directed, swerving for instance from the first to the second violins (both on the outer edge of the stage) to transport a melody from one group to the other. Overheard when Rattle returned to take a last bow after the orchestra had already left the stage: "he seems so youthful; in comparison Abbado was so ... regal." Indeed.

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