This afternoon, Joshua and I went to Symphony Hall to hear the Berlin Philharmonic.
Ticket prices are getting out of hand. The best seats in the house for today’s concert commanded a price of $148.00 per seat, far too much for an orchestral concert.
Our tickets cost $98.00 apiece, or $196.00 in total, to which was added a $5.50-per-ticket handling fee. I think $207.00 was the most I have ever shelled out to hear a concert.
Was the Berlin Philharmonic worth such a ridiculous sum?
If we were poor, the answer to that question would be a decided “No”. However, we would not have missed the Berlin Philharmonic for the world—although I am not entirely certain we would have sprung for $148.00 seats if they had been our only option.
Symphony Hall was almost full this afternoon, which surprised me. The Berlin Philharmonic Press Office, at the start of this year’s Berlin Philharmonic tour of the U.S., had announced that ticket sales for the current tour were “sluggish”, no doubt the result of worldwide economic conditions. Since ticket sales in Boston, based upon the size of today’s crowd, were robust, perhaps sales at other venues have been disappointing. In addition to Boston, other stops on the orchestra’s 2009 U.S. tour are New York, Ann Arbor, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. (I have heard, anecdotally, that sales in Ann Arbor have been poor.)
Wonderful though it is, today’s Berlin Philharmonic is not the Berlin Philharmonic of yore. It is no longer the fine-tuned, miraculous, glamorous ensemble it had been under Herbert Von Karajan and Claudio Abbado. The orchestra maintains a glorious sound—although the sound is not as glorious as it used to be—but in all other respects the orchestra is a pale reflection of its former self.
The current Cleveland Orchestra can play the current Berlin Philharmonic under the table, as countless European critics were quick to point out in late summer 2008, when the two orchestras played, back-to-back, at The Salzburg Festival.
Many other orchestras besides the exalted Cleveland ensemble are today capable of trumping Berlin in one category or another.
The current New York Philharmonic plays with more precision than the current Berlin Philharmonic. The current Vienna Philharmonic displays a more beautiful and more refined sound than the current Berlin Philharmonic. The current Dresden Staatskapelle and the current Leipzig Gewandhaus offer more penetrating and more idiomatic interpretations of Central European repertory than the current Berlin Philharmonic. On a good night, the current Philadelphia Orchestra commands far more color and brilliance than the current Berlin Philharmonic.
Despite all this, the Berlin Philharmonic remains special, and this is because the orchestra retains a very special sound. That special sound is the chief attraction that lures listeners to the orchestra’s concerts.
The orchestra’s sound is, above all, a meaty one. It has an intangible body and mass that the listener can practically grasp. The remarkable colors and textures of the Karajan years are gone, and the magical transparency and luminosity of the Abbado years are no longer in evidence—and yet the sound remains unique, seemingly emerging from the earth’s core, with a depth and penetration no other orchestra can match.
The sound of the Berlin Philharmonic is built upon its lower strings. The remarkable bass section, for decades the finest in the world, possesses a sound of unparalleled richness and presence. The cello section tempers the darkness of the bass sound with a mellow glow. This luxurious cushion of sound emanating from the lower strings, the foundation of the orchestra’s distinction, provides the support upon which everything else rests.
The sheer beauty of the sound was the only pleasure to be had this afternoon. The orchestra is otherwise not in good shape.
When Abbado retired in 2002, almost one-third of the orchestra’s membership retired with him, including several principal players. The orchestra has yet to recover from that mass exodus of personnel.
Things have been made worse by the fact that the orchestra has not been able to locate the right conductor to succeed Abbado.
The current Berlin Philharmonic conductor, Simon Rattle, is a high-profile figure, but Rattle has never been anything more than a compromise appointment. His chief qualification for the post was that he was not Daniel Barenboim, the other conductor lobbying to become Abbado’s successor—and a figure many Berlin Philharmonic players intensely disliked. (Riccardo Muti would have been the natural and most logical choice to follow Abbado, but the orchestra did not wish to appoint a second consecutive Italian conductor.)
Without the right conductor at the helm, the Berlin Philharmonic has been enduring a frustrating decade, and that frustration was immediately apparent this afternoon.
Of most significance, the orchestra did not play together.
Attacks were rough, releases not unanimous. The orchestra’s phrasing was not in unison. Startling numbers of outright flubs marked the afternoon: missed notes, early entrances, laissez-faire articulation, smudged passagework, less-than-pure intonation. It was all rather dumbfounding.
Even more dumbfounding was that the orchestra’s imperfections were on display in the music of Brahms, whose music has always been second-nature to this ensemble and whose scores pose no technical challenges for international-level players.
However could the Berlin Philharmonic—with its luxurious rehearsal schedules—fail to cover itself with glory in the symphonies of Brahms? And on an international tour, no less, for which extra rehearsals had been set aside? And after multiple presentations of the very same programs in Berlin?
The fault must be placed squarely at the feet of Rattle, whose conducting of the Third and Fourth Symphonies was atrocious.
Rattle does not know what to do in the music of Brahms, so—at random—he constantly changed tempo, played with inner voices, emphasized passing incident, highlighted counterpoint to excess, and located all sorts of Shostakovich-like climaxes that are not in the scores.
The result: transitions were a mess, forward momentum non-existent, orchestral balances haphazard, dynamics brutally over-emphasized. The performances were vulgar.
Symphony No. 3 was played first. The concert concluded with Symphony No. 4. Between the two Brahms symphonies, the orchestra played Schoenberg’s Opus 34, Music To Accompany A Motion Picture Scene.
I was unable to decide which was worse: the performance of the Third Symphony or the performance of the Fourth. Both were crude performances, grossly overplayed, breathtaking in their complete lack of understanding of Brahms’s writing.
Ultimately it did not matter which performance was worse, because the audience in both cases was treated to Brahms filtered through the mind of an airhead—and a very weird airhead at that—from Liverpool.
Josh and I had invited my parents to Boston this weekend specifically to hear the Berlin Philharmonic, but my parents—for various reasons having nothing to do with the Berlin Philharmonic or Rattle—had declined our invitation.
They were wise to stay home.
It was a dispiriting afternoon.
Josh and I will hear more Brahms before the week is out. On Thursday night, to mark Josh’s birthday, we shall hear the Boston Symphony play Brahms’s First under Bernard Haitink.
If nothing else, we know in advance we shall not be presented with more Brahms as faux-Shostakovich.