CONCERT REVIEW | Abrahamsen & Bruckner | Berliner Philharmoniker & Rattle | Royal Festival Hall, London | "the Berliner strings never betrayed an underlying sinew – somehow reminding one of the Karajan-sound, as it were"

United Kingdom: Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle (Conductor). Reviewed at Royal Festival Hall, London on 31 May 2018.

Hans Abrahamsen, 3 Pieces for orchestra (UK premiere)
Bruckner, Symphony No.9 (with finale of Samale, Mazucca, Phillips & Cohrs)

Sir Simon Rattle & Berliner Philharmoniker, © Monika Rittershaus

In London, the past year has been a feast of notable ensembles playing Bruckner’s 9th symphony. Haitink presented two programs of the work with the London Symphony Orchestra almost exactly a year ago, before Gatti conducted his Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of the work at the BBC Proms. Now, Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker, in what is their final UK tour together with Rattle as principal conductor, return to the capital with Samale, Phillips, Cohrs, and Mazzuca’s four-movement version of the valedictory symphony.

Given Rattle’s 2012 benchmark recording of this four-movement edition of the symphony with the same orchestra, there is little doubt of Rattle’s authority in this oft-discussed work. Considering the passage of 6 years since then through which the conductor and orchestra further matured their bond, the performance of tonight had spontaneity and thrill that delved further into the organic architecture of the symphony much more than before. If the thick soup of the Berliner strings never betrayed an underlying sinew – somehow reminding one of the Karajan-sound, as it were – the jaggedly pressed tempo at the restatement of the first thematic group tutti of the first movement introduced an overwhelming magnitude of firepower.

Such driving intensity, well inherited to the Scherzo, was a real treat to those in search of a demonic side to Bruckner’s soundworld. Meanwhile, in the machine that Rattle created in the Berliner Philharmoniker, there could have been more consideration for both subtlety and contrast. If the playing felt mannered at times, this perhaps reflected the monotonous albeit wondrously sonorous phrasings of the strings – rarely without legato – and the squareness of dynamics – mostly loud. Thus was the buildup for the dissonant climax of the Adagio wanting in potent of its suspense, and the climax itself overlooked of shaking impact. 

Sir Simon Rattle & Berliner Philharmoniker, © Monika Rittershaus

It has become customary for performances of the three-movement edition of the symphony to broaden the last 13 bars of the Adagio to suggest a sense of ending. This was of no interest to Rattle, who prepared for a triumphant Finale, the focal point of the occasion. While all movements of today’s performance was performed faster than the successful 2012 rendition, it was clear that Rattle had rethought the Finale the most. Taken in a bracing pace, the sparseness of the score was lubricated to form a forward momentum under a palpable pulse. There was much flexibility too; the decreased tempo of the coda markedly defined the re-emergence of the first theme of the first movement, which often gets lost.

Such freshness of the Finale was convincing in light of the reconstructive nature of the work. It is hard to tell what Bruckner may have altered in the final version of his Finale. The trio of the Scherzo of the symphony alone, for example, went through two alternative versions before being settled for the current one. Consequentially, Rattle’s decision to ‘interpret’, by adding his own creative substance, ultimately shaped the work into a creative completion that Samale, Phillips, Cohrs, and Mazzuca had started. All elements combined, the final D major chord fended off any notion of musical dissatisfaction.

[The article is published on the Bruckner Journal]

Young-Jin Hur