September 25, 2005

Playing Their Hearts Out

The Berliner Philharmonic with Schönberg, Ravel and Strauss


Arnold Schönberg
Variations for Orchestra op. 31
Maurice Ravel
Richard Strauss
Ein Heldenleben op. 40


Berliner Philharmoniker
Simon Rattle - Conductor
Magdalena Kožená- Mezzo soprano

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Playing Their Hearts Out

The Berliner Philharmonic with Schönberg, Ravel and Strauss

by Nancy Chapple / Photo: C.E.M.A.

So much was happening in Simon Rattle's interpretation of Schönberg's Variations for Orchestra op. 31 that Lewis Carroll's poem Jabberwocky came to mind: "slithy toves did gyre and gambol in the wabe". Every phrase moved in a driven way towards its high point; all the sounds were in motion. In sections featuring solo strings, the playing had the intimacy of chamber music. The 4th Variation highlighted the 1st cello and flutes in a waltz played in an intense and highly present way. In fact, the word "present" comes to mind often when describing Rattle's conducting: taut with a lot of bite and many high points. This kind of interpretation appeals to the gut, making you want to say: "Wow, there's a lot in there, I didn't quite get it. Could you do it again?" The most enthusiastic applause came from the "bleachers", the seats set up on stage behind the musicians.

Magdalena Kožená

For the curious who have been following the Berlin press, Maurice Ravel's Shéhérazade was an opportunity to observe the couple Magdalena Kožená and Simon Rattle on stage together: they recently had a son and bought a house in the south of Berlin. But of course the real attraction was at the musical level. From the orchestra's first pizzicato chord, mezzosoprano Kozena closed her eyes tight as if to make a wish, and, on the whole, those facing Kozena got the benefit of her highly differentiated facial expressions. The first orchestral song Asie repeats the words "Je voudrais" many times, expressing all sorts of desires: I would like to sail, to travel, to see Damascus and beautiful silk turbans. Kozena expressed many different colors of desire, as if she was suffused with the work, as if it had been injected directly into her blood. Together, the singer and orchestra savored the ends of the phrases in La Flute enchantée.

Rattle conducted Strauss's Ein Heldenleben by heart, making ample use of a handkerchief to wipe his brow. The phrases again pulled us in inexorably, creating an ode to the art of storytelling. Here too, no thought was left unfinished. The entire audience was on edge listening to the masterful playing of concertmaster Guy Braunstein in the endless caresses in the love scene in Des Helden Gefährtin. Though he remained seated, his expressive tone consistently cut through the entire orchestra. The off-stage trumpets in Des Helden Walstatt were precise - and then all hell broke loose, not in the playing but in the storytelling: the snare drum drove the hero towards a militaristic resolution. Frightening just how enticing such sounds can be. With drastically dark colors and a bite to the sound, Des Helden Weltflucht und Vollendung continued to pull us in emotionally through the long drawn-out end, where the mood was suspended from the slow harmonic movement.

Every now and then a chord felt out of tune: the last note of the Ravel, a few brass entrances in Strauss - small shaky gestures that were all the more surprising in an otherwise flawless performance. If you're looking for a visceral listening experience that truly raises goosebumps, you can't do much better than an evening with Rattle and his Berlin Philharmonic. As my mother - herself cellist for over 30 years in professional American orchestras - said, "They played their hearts out for him!"