Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic in Sibelius

High-voltage Sibelius kicks off Rattle's London Residency

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Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic in Sibelius
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If the rumours are true, Rattle has made the construction of a new concert hall on the Barbican site a condition of his potential contract with the London Symphony Orchestra. If anyone can make it happen, he can. And while it doesn’t take the Berlin Philharmonic to show how much one is needed, the sheer work required of them to recreate their sound in that wide, dispersing hall was staggering.

But work they did: the blaze of human energy on stage seemed almost to suck the oxygen out of the hall. This was high-voltage, high-resolution, high-cholesterol Sibelius, his radical first two symphonies emerging from the Berliner’s orchestral crucible in almost blinding technicolour.

Rattle is on record as having struggled with the Berlin Phil in Sibelius – not one of ‘their’ composers, he described them to scholar Vesa Siren as ‘a very heavy, Germanic truck that has its feet on the ground’. His solution here was to go under the bonnet, floodlighting its combustible inner mechanism, and throwing the music’s fractured, kaleidoscopic logic into sharp relief. Out with Sibelius brooding the mystic: enter an explosive innovator who made the decisive break with Austro-German tradition.

The long clarinet solo which opens the First Symphony glowed with veiled refinement against that cold, elemental noise of timpani. Strings entered with a scything edge, igniting an Allegro energico of etched detail and vitality. If Sibelius declared he was dealing with the ‘hard part of human nature’ Rattle’s reading of the Andante perfectly delivered grand emotion with icy precision, descending string arpeggios ringing out with metallic force, building such impetus one could forget it was a slow movement at all. A bristling Scherzo had weight and velocity if not mercurial mischief; best of all was the Finale, here vast in scale, with an allegro of blistering speed. However heavy the truck may be, when it moves, it’s turbo-charged. Rattle manipulated tempi to build a vast momentum, underpinned by a vibrantly thunderous bass section.

One could pick out any number of soloists (melting trumpet solos, fruity bassoons, the urbane style of flautist Emmanuel Pahud) but the basses are unsung heroes of this band, nowhere more clearly than in the Second Symphony. Where we’re used to hearing a generalised rumbling, here we have every note pulled into stringent focus. Their long pizzicato passage at the end of the Andante gave a warmly resonant ground on which backlit wind solos and high strings could dance, while their tender, undulating scales gave the very end stoic life in the face of despair.

If the First symphony felt at times claustrophobic, there was more room to breathe in Rattle’s Second, though no let-up in intensity. In fact, this extraordinary mosaic-like work struck me more than ever like Sibelius’s own symphonic Kát’a Kabanová, with its shocking, unpredictable violence and sudden glimpses of lyric intimacy. Rattle skillfully steered his resplendent forces towards a Finale of overwhelming power.

I envy those with tickets to the next five symphonies at the Barbican; the rest of us will have to turn to the live broadcasts on BBC Radio 3. It’s the creative friction between the German giant and the British Sibelian that makes this cycle so exciting. While the LSO will never quite produce that sound, Rattle can explore something very different with them, which is why we need him back.

 

Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic's Sibelius Cycle continues on 11 and 12 February at the Barbican Hall. Visit www.barbican.org.uk to find out more. Listen live on Radio 3

 

 

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February 2015 issue (Sibelius)

 

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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