Rattle's Berlin Philharmoniker at Carnegie Hall

Beethoven Sunny-side Up

By: - Nov 20, 2015

Berlin Philharmoniker
Conducted by Sir Simon Rattle
Beethoven, Symphonies 8 and 6
Carnegie Hall
New York, New York
November 19, 2015

Where oh where is the dark, scowling Beethoven we know so well?  Not at Carnegie Hall as the Berlin Philharmoniker performed his 8th and 6th Symphonies under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle. Joy emanated through the Hall. Even the storm of the 4th movement of the Pastoral, is crackling and electric as it comes and goes.

Commentators note that Beethoven marked the end of the classical period, or the neo-classical period. Yet listening to these Symphonies the future comes to mind:  Mahler at his lakeside cottage, Messiaen’s birds and songs from the village square incorporated by so many 20th century composers.  Under Rattle these pieces were moving into the future, not a summation of what had gone before.

Are these works a musical evocation of the beauty of the countryside? Rattle encourages evocative of the sounds of the woods and hills. Small phrases artfully embedded in larger sweeps are evocative nuggets of sound suggesting place.  Here was Mathieu DuFour, lately a star of the Chicago Symphony, and now a nightingale, joined by quails and cuckoos on the oboe and clarinet. It was only one of many jewel-like pleasures these symphonies yield.

Beethoven wrote that he was capturing the echo of the rocks and hills. Dialogue between the instrumentalists captures notes springing from the violins and dug deep from double-basses.  Phrases are captured and smoothed into a whole, as conductor, musicians and the music relish their combined roles.  

The Philharmoniker never seems relaxed, yet the music graciously unfurls in wonderful repetitions as the world comes close and then recedes before our ears. There is a stream of semiquavers over a mesmerizing harmonic background with suggestions of melody in the woodwind and strings. When the storm arrives it cuts across the contemplative stream with the piccolo, timpani and trombone set against the double basses and cellos. Just as suddenly the storm disappears into the Shepherd’s Song, which is a smoothing and repetitious finale.

Rattle has a way with him. He can jab out phrases with bite and also keep them in the whole of a movement. Variety is carved out from hypnotically suspended time.  In revealing the final stepwise descent at the highest and lowest registers of the orchestra, time ebbs and flows, creating ever more intense interplay of cycles.  The 4th movement of the 8th Symphony was full of wit and humor.  

Beethoven had a dog-eared copy of Christoph Sturm’s Reflections of the Works of God in Nature. Here he marked “All nature is formed to afford us numberless pleasing objects and to supply us with a variety of enjoyments which continually succeed each other.”   The entry continues "Our constant taste for variety is always gratified. Nature labors on every side to surprise us. …May our souls be filled with grateful joy.”  

In this spirit, a joyful audience cheered their superb guests from Berlin.