Sunday, November 15, 2009

Shake, Rattle And Roll

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.


  1. hello... hapi blogging... have a nice day! just visiting here....

  2. The whole point of this tour is to promote Berlin’s new set of Brahms symphonies, which I am told stinks.

    Berlin appeared here in 2003. I was not impressed. The orchestra made mistakes in Bartok’s Music For Strings, Percussion and Celesta. I could not hear Tasmin Little in the Ligeti Violin Concerto. Her tone was thin and small. She may not even have been playing for all I know. Beethoven’s Sixth was a nothing performance. Rattle can’t conduct Beethoven.

    One of our local critics says that Rattle does better work with the Philadelphia Orchestra than the Berlin Philharmonic. However, I don’t think he goes to Berlin much, so I don’t know how he can make that judgment.

    Did you see the review in the Dallas paper? The critic went to New York to see the new Janacek production at the Met and caught the Berlin Philharmonic. He gave Berlin a scathing review. It was the most detailed and specific of all the Berlin reviews. It was a total dismissal of Rattle.

  3. Dan, I just read the Scott Cantrell review.

    I don’t think Cantrell liked the concert!

    I heard the Berlin Philharmonic on its 2003 U.S. tour, too, but in a different program than the one you heard.

    I was in law school at the time, and I heard the orchestra in the Concert Hall of the Kennedy Center in Washington. The orchestra played a modern work by Heiner Goebbels, Sibelius’s Symphony No. 7 and Schubert’s Symphony No. 9.

    The Sibelius was interesting but bizarre (in Rattle’s hands, it sounded like William Walton). The Schubert, shockingly bad, completely fell apart at least once in each movement.

    The Goebbels piece was the hoot. Rattle pranced around the entire front of the stage, gyrating and shaking his head like Ann Miller in her big number in “Easter Parade”, in what must have been his own personal idea of “cool”.

    It had to be witnessed to be believed.

    At first, people in the audience were cringing and rolling their eyes. Soon after, they started outright laughing and snorting and guffawing.

    The concert never recovered from that disastrous opening gambit—yet I don’t think Rattle had a clue that he had made an utter fool of himself (and, in the process, lost the audience for the rest of the concert).

  4. Sounds like shake, rattle and roll.

  5. Simon Rattle has a long history of bombing in Washington.

    His first Washington appearance was in the 80’s with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I was there. Rattle bombed. He bombed with the audience and he bombed with the local critics. The musicians played like pigs and Rattle danced like a pixie spreading fairy dust the whole time.

    He returned in the 90’s with his Birmingham orchestra. I was there. The house was half empty as the concert began. The first half was so bad there was little applause and half the audience departed at intermission, including me, leaving a quarter house behind. The first half was one of the worst concerts I ever attended. It was so bad, I was in a state of disbelief. As it left, the audience was buzzing about how bad the orchestra was and asking itself why Rattle had such a big reputation.

    Rattle’s third time in Washington was with Birmingham again, at the end of his tenure. I did not go, on purpose. There was not a full house. Sales were disappointing. At the concert, orchestra and conductor were not well received. I don’t think the Post even bothered to publish a review, although the paper sent a stringer. WPAS and the Kennedy Center vowed never to engage Birmingham again.

    That 2003 Berlin Philharmonic tour concert you attended was Rattle’s fourth visit to Washington. I was there. The concert was not a sell-out. People at WPAS and the Kennedy Center were very disappointed with the performance, which was not good, and have not invited Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic back.

    That is why Berlin and Rattle did not play the Kennedy Center this year or in 2007.

  6. Simon Rattle is third-rate.

    He only appeared with the Cleveland Orchestra once, and the orchestra and administration thought he was inept. He’s never been asked back.

    The rehearsals were a disaster because Rattle didn’t know what he was doing. Five minutes into the first rehearsal, the orchestra learned that Rattle lacked an accurate sense of pitch, couldn’t maintain a consistent rhythm, and didn’t understand voicing. It was all down hill from there.

    Rattle acted like a fishwife the whole time he was in Cleveland. He managed to offend everyone in the most patrician of organizations. He also managed to offend personnel at his hotel. By the time he left town, everyone here hated him, including his driver.

    At the concerts, the players simply ignored him and did what they always do for incompetent conductors: offer icy perfection.

    The same thing happened when Rattle made his one and only appearance in Amsterdam. The players of the Concertgebouw thought he was a fraud.

    Rattle’s never been asked back in Amsterdam, either.

  7. I'm not surprised Rattle acted like a fishwife. He's very, very, very low-class.

  8. Excellent assessment of the hugely overrated Rattle. I saw him a few times in Birmingham in the 1980s, couldn't stand his antics.

  9. Excellent assessment of the hugely overrated Rattle. I saw him a few times in Birmingham in the 1980s, couldn't stand his antics.