CONCERT REVIEW | Widmann, Lutosławski, & Brahms | Berliner Philharmoniker & Rattle | Royal Festival Hall, London | "One had to simply admire this klang while it was still there, for the silence that followed the last note signaled the end of an era"

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

Jörg Widmann, Tanz auf dem Vulkan (Dance on the volcano) for orchestra (UK premiere)
Lutosławski, Symphony No.3
Brahms, Symphony No.1

Sir Simon Rattle & Berliner Philharmoniker, © Monika Rittershaus

Of the many things Sir Simon Rattle achieved as principal conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker since his appointment in 2002, not many will dispute of Rattle’s paramount contributions to the broadening of repertoire, increase of public engagement, and the reintroduction of a string-heavy orchestral sonority at the Philharmonie. Marking the Berliner Philharmoniker’s final UK concert with Rattle as principal conductor, these elements were prominent as if to symbolize the symbiosis between the conductor and the band.

I imagine not many works can serve as a better appetizer to an evening’s program than Widmann’s deliciously visceral 10-minute long Dance on the Volcano for Orchestra (UK premiere). The opening moments drew audible laughter, as the orchestra, as part of the intentions of the score, invited Rattle onto the stage with a light jazz backdrop (the work also finished with Rattle leaving the stage in a similar fashion). As entertaining as Rattle’s mischievous attitude was during these moments – hands in his pockets, gliding impishly to and from the podium – the dazzling expressiveness of the central section, preceded by a short buildup, proved more substance than just style. Furthermore, in the polystylistic conception of this work, familiar sounding melodies that lurked beneath the percussive texture encapsulated the busy century that separate the two works that were to come.

If the spirit of dancing on a volcano was the idea behind Widmann’s work, Lutosławski’s 3rd symphony recounted a volcano of its own sort. Latent of dramatic heft, upon the soil of a slow brewing stasis was ignited an elemental force. Rattle did little to contain the strides of the orchestra, and Lutosławski’s calculated chaos matched the imperious fervour of the Berliner Philharmoniker’s immaculate playing.

Leaving the afterglow of Lutoslawski’s symphony behind, the timpani strokes at the start of Brahms’ C minor symphony announced a new aural landscape. The thick legato-driven strings, so deftly organic and suave as to melt all the angularity of the first half, at times swamped the woodwind solos in the middle movements. Still it was hard to doubt the impressiveness of playing. Coincidence or not, it was this triumphant symphony that Karajan conducted for his last London concert with this revered German orchestra 30 years ago, and thus comparisons become inevitable. Where Karajan maintains an inexorable degree of tension throughout (Testament, SBT1431), I could not help thinking, however, that Rattle’s take was too lyrical to be dramatic yet too big-boned to be sweet.

Yet like it or not, this is how the Berliners have greased their machine to operate for the past 16 years under Rattle’s direction, and this is music making no other can imitate. One had to simply admire this klang while it was still there, for the silence that followed the last note signaled the end of an era.

Sir Simon Rattle & Berliner Philharmoniker, © Monika Rittershaus

Young-Jin Hur