The year 2017 in music – A selection of highlights

As the year is coming to its close, it is only natural to look back at some of its most memorable moments in music in more or less chronological order. As always, it is hard to pick just a few events of a musically rich and varied year. Anyway, here are some picks along the way.

In January, a semi-staged performance of Ligeti’s operatic pandaemonium, Le grand Macabre (1974-77/1996) by London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle opened the year with a bang. Or, to be precise, with a honk. The Car Horn Prelude by the LSO percussion was such a riveting opening to Ligeti’s vision of a Judgment Day gone astray.

IMG_4254Ligeti’s score is a brilliant mix of effects and unifying structures combining elements of various earlier works into a most unique take on music theatre. Peter Sellars’ subtle staging relied wisely on the drama and comedy inherent in the score itself.

The marvellous cast and the splendidly multi-talented London Symphony Chorus carefully prepared by Simon Halsey perfected the evening.

Hearing a premiere of a Stravinsky piece so long lost that being turned into a myth was, quite frankly, one of those once in a lifetime events. Composed for the memorial concert of Rimsky-Korsakov, Funeral Song, Op. 5 (Pogrebal’naya pesnya, 1908) was given that solitary premiere performance in January 1909 at St. Petersburg Conservatory.

As years went by, all traces for the whereabouts of the score and parts of Funeral Song were lost until the orchestral parts were rediscovered by random chance in 2015. Stravinsky’s score was reconstructed from these materials and a somewhat belated second premiere was given by Mariinsky Orchestra with Valery Gergiev in December 2016 at St. Petersburg.

In the following February Funeral Song arrived in the west with the UK premiere by Philharmonia and Esa-Pekka Salonen at Royal Festival Hall, followed by an European tour. Rarely there has been such a thrill in the air as the dark opening line of Funeral Song emerged from the double basses gradually joined by winds and brass and upper strings with distant beats of a bass drum.IMG_4403

Lasting twelve minutes, Funeral Song is Stravinsky’s most substantial work for orchestra before The Firebird (1910). Not only the opening bars, but many other aspects of the Rimsky memorial are shared with the later ballet, which paved the way for the young composer to his journey into the most influential composer of the 20th century.

On that Sunday at Southbank Centre, Salonen and Philharmonia, a dream team for Stravinsky, gave Funeral Song an outstandinding UK premiere. A journey that will stay in the hearts of the Royal Festival Hall audience.

Ensemble InterContemporain celebrated its fortieth anniversary in March with a festival weekend at Philharmonie de Paris. First, there was retrospective evening with works and excerpts from every decade of the EiC history. Among the many delightful encounters there were unforgettable performances of Elliott Carter’s Gra (1993) for solo clarinet by Jérôme Comte and Mémoriale (1985/1993) for flute and ensemble by Sophie Cherrier and Emmanuelle Ophèle with Matthias Pintscher conducting.

IMG_4500The second EiC anniversary concert featured a very Boulezian programme opening with a breathtaking performance of the Schoenberg Kammersymphonie, Op. 9. Followed by a selection of Webern songs, those rarely heard gems beautifyully sung by soprano Yeree Suh. After these amazing performances with Pintscher, the EiC crowned the weekend with a performance of whirlwind virtuosity of Boulez’ sur Incises (1996/1998/2006), a fitting tribute to the Maître.

In April I was lucky to catch Herbert Blomstedt, who celebrated his 90th birthday later this year, rehearsing and performing Sibelius Fourth Symphony, Op 63 (1911) and Beethoven Fifth Symphony, Op. 67 (1804-08) with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra.

IMG_4576In his usual manner, Blomstedt made no fuss about himself, but simply put his lifelong experience and immense artistic vision in the service of the music. As a result, we had the most spirited performances of Sibelius and Beethoven with such admirable clarity and energy.

Twenty years younger than Blomstedt, John Adams had had his 70th birthday celebrations going on the whole season. A zenith was reached with a concert performance of Doctor Atomic at the Barbican. Following six days of recording sessions with the composer at the helm, the BBC Symphony Orchestra was on the top of their game with this remarkable operatic score revolving around J. Robert Oppenheimer and the crucial moments of the Manhattan project resulting in the detonation of the first atomic bomb.

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Teamed with his fabulous soli, Gerald Finley, Julia Bullock, Andrew Staples, Jennifer Johnston et al. and the BBC Singers, Adams led an outstanding performance of Doctor Atomic which will be long remembered by those lucky ones present.

From June to September I had the chance to plunge into the unique world of La damnation de Faust with no less than three riveting productions of the Berlioz masterpiece.

IMG_5072First there was a staged performance at the Berlin Staatsoper’s refuge, the Schiller Theater. Conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, this was a musically superb production with the Staatskapelle Berlin sounding absolutely glorious. The cast featured Charles Castronovo, Magdalena Kožená and Florian Boesch all so very brilliant. Although Terry Gilliam’s staging was bizarre as a whole, there were moments in that too. But mostly, it was an evening about the music.

IMG_5462My second encounter with Berlioz’ Faust was at BBC Proms with Sir John Eliot Gradiner, Orchestra Révolutionnaire et Romantique and the Monteverdi Choir. A concert performance with the Royal Albert Hall well utilized for all the offstage effects in the score, this setup was probably closer to Berlioz’ ideal than a fully stage one.

As a most formidable Berliozian, Gardiner brought out all those ravishing colors of the score within an emotionally charged period instrument performance of skill and vigor.  The  splendid cast featured Michael Spyres, Ann Hallenberg and Laurent Naouri with Ashley Riches’ excellent take on Brander.

IMG_5966In September I was overjoyed to close my journey with La damnation de Faust with two days of electrifying rehearsals and a fabulous concert performance by Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Joined by Bryan Hymel, Caren Cargill and Christopher Purves, yet another great Faust cast, this was a smashing way to celebrate the genius of Berlioz for the third time. Luckily this one will ha an album release by the orchestra’s house label LSO Live.

My other Proms venture involved Arnold Schoenberg’s vast nocturnal panorama, Gurrelieder (1900-11). Hearing Schoenberg’s setting of the Jacobsen texts on a Danish legend is always something special, given the work’s scale and craft. Again, it was an evening with Rattle and the LSO with the choral forces from the London Symphony Chorus, CBSO Chorus and Orfeó Català all excellently coached by Simon Halsey.

IMG_5552A superb cast featuring Simon O’Neill, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Karen Cargill and Thomas Quasthoff completed the 450-strong stage setup. A sheer visual impact of these massed forces was quite overwhelming. Yet, what is striking with Gurrelieder, is Schoenberg’s imaginative use of all those various combinations of his forces from the most intimate chamber music to the full palette of the closing Seht, die Sonne. All these nuances were carried out in delightful detail by Rattle and his ensemble. A night to remember.

Is there a more perfect gem of the Age of Enlightenment than The Creation? A most splendid performance of Haydn’s magnum opus with the Berlin Philharmonic opened Simon Rattle’s farewell season as the orchestra’s music director.

The talents of the Rundfunkchor Berlin were in good use throughout the evening and the three soli, Elsa Dreisig, Mark Padmore and Florian Boesch were simply perfect. It should be noted, that for Elsa Dreisig this was her first take on The Creation. She stepped in for Genia Kühmeier on a last minute and sung the soprano part with overwhelming charm and skill.

During the Rattle years there has been a delightful share of the Haydn oeuvre in the Berlin repertoire. Hearing The Creation with these fine artists was a joy.IMG_5587

For Rattle the Berlin farewell coincides with the beginning of his tenure as London Symphony Orchestra’s music director. The official launch of the Rattle era on 14th September was a delightful journey into contemporary British music.

As a concert opener, there was the premiere of Helen Grime Fanfare, a work-in-progress to be premiered in its completed form in April, followed by Asyla (1997), a riveting Thomas Adès classic originally commissioned by Rattle and the CBSO.

Harrison Birtwistle’s Violin Concerto (2009-10) had a virtuosic performance by Christian Tetzlaff and the LSO. And Oliver Knussen’s Third Symphony (1973-79), a masterpiece all too rarely programmed, was heard before the evening closed with Elgar’s Enigma Variations, Op. 36 (1898-99). IMG_5892

Integrating contemporary music into the standard repertoire is not only about commissioning new works but maintaining them in concert programmes after their premieres. Therefore to was a profound pleasure to encounter all these works within one night. A most promising start for the LSO and Rattle relationship.

Among the many inspiring premieres of 2017, the two Finnish firsts by Kaija Saariaho, the opera Only the Sound Remains (2015) at Finnish National Opera in April and the song cycle True Fire (2014/2017) with Gerald Finley, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Hannu Lintu.

Only the Sound Remains combines two Nôh drama inspired operas into a two act whole. Written for a small ensemble of string quartet, flute, kantele and percussion with two soloists, a vocal quartet and a dancer, Only the Sound Remains is a detailed study in subtle, chamber-like expression with utmost intensity and intimacy.

fullsizeoutput_1723The Finnish National Opera production was staged by Peter Sellars and featured Davone Tines and Anthony Roth Costanzo in the roles of the Fisherman and the Spirit. The instrumental ensemble was conducted by André de Ridder.

Although written for a large orchestra, the same intense intimacy was carried into the song cycle True Fire, written for Gerald Finley. There are six movements based on the texts of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Seamus Heaney and Mahmoud Darwish as well as a lullaby of native American origin.

IMG_7294With its imaginatively sublime setting of the texts and vibrant orchestration, True Fire is one of the most impressive pieces by Saariaho.

In December there were two very special events with Sir John Eliot Gradiner and the Monteverdi, first a string worksop at Morley College with the Orchestre Rèvolutionnaire et Romantique featuring string orchestra arrangements of Webern, Debussy and Schubert quartets conducted by Gardiner with Alina Ibragimova leading the ORR.

IMG_7011It was a performance for friends, with all the formalities dropped off as the musicians and the audience enjoyed an afternoon together with Gardiner introducing the works with the most informative and informal manner followed by superb performances of the ORR strings features members of the Chiaroscuro Quartet and the Monteverdi Apprenticeship Programme.

And highlighting the 450th anniversary of Claudio Monteverdi there was a most spellbinding event at V & A Museum. Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists presented a series of pop-up numbers from the Monteverdi operas and Vespers in various galleries of the V & A followed by a concert proper at the Cartoon Gallery with key scenes from the operas.

IMG_7426After their long anniversary tour this was a great chance for the London audiences to catch the essence of Monteverdi. The free tickets were sold within a minute, so those of us present at the concert felt enormously fortunate.

A happy year in music altogether.

c Jari Kallio

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Dazzling #Monteverdi450 wrap-up by Sir John Eliot Gardiner & the Monteverdis at V & A

0A949E11-A32A-4A84-9D26-541D105BD47BAfter spending most of the year on tour with the three surviving operas and the Vespers, Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his marvellous Monteverdi team assembled at London’s V & A museum for a final celebration of the 450th anniversary of their namesake.

For their London audience of Monteverdi Friends and the 150 lucky ones who had been quick enough to book their free tickets, which, by the way, were sold within a minute, Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and the members of the English Baroque Soloists presented a fabulous selection of key moments from the Monteverdi operas as well as the Vespers.

The evening was comprised of two events. First, there was a series of pop-ups around the V & A open to the public followed by the concert proper at the Cartoon Gallery. In addition to celebrating Monteverdi’s 450th birthday, the evening was also the 50th anniversary of Gardiner’s first concert with the Monteverdi Choir at the very same venue.

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The first pop-up was, of course, that marvellous opening toccata from L’Orfeo superbly performed by the EBS brass accompanied by a drummer all placed on the balcony of the main entrance.

From there on we were set on a fantastic promenade led by Sir JEG throughout various galleries each hosting an unforgettable performance of a carefully selected Monteverdi piece.

Our next stop was a surge into one of the most beautiful entries of the entire Monteverdi output, Duo seraphim from Vespro della Beata Vergine. Sung with shattering beauty by three soloists from the ranks of the Monteverdi Choir accompanied by three lutes wonderfully paced by Gardiner. The soli were based on balconies on opposite sides of the gallery creating a splendid spatial effect essential to the music. An ear opener par excellence!

Moving on to Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria we were first treated with two extracts from act one, Coro di feaci with a beautiful take on its string prelude and huge intensity of the choir dispersed among the audience leading to Ulisse’s monologue, Dormo ancora in an absolutely gripping performance by Furio Zanasi.

Promenading on, we had a joyous encounter of more music from Ulisse, namely Coro in cielo and Coro marittimo with the singers aptly placed on the balcony. Followed by a short visit to the splendor of Selva morale e spirituale, Chi vol che m’innamori was dressed in a beautiful sounding garment.

Concluding with Puchra es, another outstanding performance of a Vespers excerpt, the pop-ups reached a wonderful conclusion. As a concept, there was such thrilling intimacy and intensity embedded in this manner of performance. Hopefully there will be other events like it involved in the future concerts of the Monteverdi.

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After all those riveting pop-ups, the stage was set for the concert proper. Again we had the pleasure of hearing the L’Orfeo toccata opened by the brass entering the hall in procession and joined onstage by the main body of the EBS.

Under Gardiner’s spirited narration we embarked on a ravishing journey into the operatic world of Monteverdi. Several scenes from each opera were featured. Along with the English Baroque Soloists and the Monterverdi Choir there were many of those brilliant soloists featured on the operas world tour as well as excellent solo singers from the ranks of the Monteverdi Choir.

Starting with the exjuberant mood of the first act of L’Orfeo, the festivity of Rosa del ciel wonderfully paced by Gardiner and outstandingly performed by Krystian Adam and Francisco Fernandez-Rueda with the blissful choir.

After a wonderful Ecco pur ch’a voi ritorno there was a stark contrast in mood, as we witnessed a deeply moving account of Orfeo’s ill-fated plea to Charon, Possente spirito. In EBS we had a top class operatic ensemble, with many memorable soli, most prominently Gwyneth Wentink’s shimmering solo harp.

And there we left L’Orfeo, at the shores of the river Styx. In his short interval speech Gardiner talked about the different worlds of the surviving Monteverdi operas and of those dozen or so lost to us.

Next we heard music from no less than six scenes from Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria ranging from Ulisse’s arrival to his hard won recognition by Penelope culmination in a most upliftingly touching duet between Furio Zanasi and Marianna Pizzolato. Replacing the lost choral passage in All’ allegrezze there was an excerpt from the Seventh Book of Madrigals, a most beautifully sung Tirsi e Clori.

And finally, the evening was coming towards its end with some special treats from L’incoronazione di Poppea, Monteverdi’s take on politics and corruption with those endless schemes and conspiracies involved. Themes that sadly haven’t lost their acuteness in everyday life over the centuries.

Ottone’s bitter words, Ah, perfida Poppea were uttered heartbreakingly by Carlo Vistoli followed by the duet of the soldiers with the ever skillful Furio Zanasi and Robert Burt. As a dazzling conclusion we were charmed by Reginald Mobley singing both Analta and Nerone in the final Poppea excerpts.

A happiest of evenings and unquestionably one of the most formidable events of the whole Monteverdi anniversary.

Monteverdi Choir & English Baroque Soloists

Sir John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

Claudio Monteverdi: L’Orfeo (excerpts)
Claudio Monteverdi: Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (excerpts)
Claudio Monteverdi: L’incoronazione di Poppea (excerpts)
Claudio Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine (excerpts)

V & A Museum, London

Friday, 15 December, 6.30 pm

c Jari Kallio

Music theatre for keyboard – Philip Glass at 80 Scandinavian tour

97078995-77E0-442B-8CC2-223135D4F4B8As a part of Philip Glass’ Scandinavian tour celebrating his 80th birthday, the composer and his friends, pianists Anton Batagov and Maki Namekawa performed an evening of Glass’ piano pieces at Musiikkitalo, Helsinki.

Even though the concert was titled Works for Piano, it shoud be noted that only one of the pieces heard at Musiikkitalo was originally written for piano. Most of the pieces were adaptations of Glass’ theatre and film music.

As an opening, we had Glass himself performing Mad Rush, a 1979 piece originally written for organ and choreographed by Lucinda Childs. Like so many pieces by Glass, Mad Rush is built upon sections of overlapping meters of three and four as well as arpeggios featuring traces of additive and subtractive processes of Glass’ early music.

Glass’ subtle touch and rubato resulted in a very intimate performance of Mad Rush appropriate for its octogenerian composer. As if the large hall had suddenly transformed into an Lower East Side art gallery or a private loft, the type of venues where most of Glass’ early concerts took place.

Following Mad Rush, there were three selections from Metamorphosis (1989), a suite for piano based on the film score The Thin Blue Line (1988) as well as incidental music for two Kafka adaptations. These small studies in melancholy are among the most widely performed pieces by Glass and dearly loved by audiences.

Again, Glass’ approach to these well-known pieces was very subtle and unsentimental, in the best sense of the word. Rhythmically these weren’t the among most accurate performances, yet there was certainly that wonderful aura of a composer performing his own music.

Musically the most insipring part of the evening was Anton Batagov performing two adaptations from Glass’ magnum opus, Einstein on the Beach (1975-76). First of them, Night Train is a dazzling twenty-minute scene from act two, originally written for the winds and keyboards of the Philip Glass Ensemble, small chorus and a solo violin. While the piano arrangement was of course bereft of the joyous timbral riot of the original, the intricate rhythmic fabric of the music was, in fact, heightened by the solo keyboard.

Batagov’s rhythmically immaculate performance of Night Train was pure pleasure. The marvellous pulsating dance of those ever so Glassian melodic figures gradually growing and fading was brought to life with Batagov’s deep understanding of this very reductive yet carefully detailed music. Played in the pitch-dark hall, Night Train and its companion piece Knee Play 5, Einstein’s closing music, were splendid reminders of the radical austerity of Glass’ early works.

The only piece originally composed for piano featured in the programme, Stokes (2012) for piano four hands, performed by Batagov and Maki Namekawa, is a short tribute for Glass’ lifelong friend, writer and farmer Howard Stokes. A simple combination of a slow and a fast section with some elegant rhythmic accents, Stokes inhabits a somewhat similar realm with Glass’ Etudes. A happy piece beautifully played by Batagov and Namekawa.

Closing the evening, we had Maki Namekawa performing a suite from Glass’ original music for Paul Schrader’s film Mishima (1984). A tour de force arrangement for piano, Mishima provided an apt finale for the evening. From relentless pulse to melodic flow and percussive effects, Namekawa characterized the various elements of the original orchestral with brilliant understanding of the full potential of the keyboard.

Ending in standing ovation during Glass’ final bows, this was a warm evening of various forms of Glassian music theatre transcribed for black and white keys. With three rather different personalities onstage, there was a refreshing variety of pianism involved for the benefit of the music comprising four decades of Glass’ multi-faced output. One could gladly enjoy a couple more evenings like this.

Philip Glass, piano
Anton Batagov, piano
Maki Namekawa, piano

Philip Glass: Mad Rush (1979)
Philip Glass: Metamorphosis 4, 3 & 2 (1989)
Philip Glass: Night Train & Knee Play 5 from Einstein on the Beach (1975-76)
Philip Glass: Stokes (2012)
Philip Glass: Selections from Mishima (1985)

Musiikkitalo, Helsinki

Thursday, 16 November 2017, 9 pm

c Jari Kallio

 

 

Realms of Strauss, Ravel and Brahms marvellously explored by Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle with Seong-Jin Cho

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On Saturday evening, the Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle performed the second half of their Asian tour programme to a sold-out Philharmonie audience.

This concert featured pieces by two ’house composers’ of the BPh, Richard Strauss (1864−1949) with his concert opener par excellence, the tone poem Don Juan, op. 20 (1888) and Johannes Brahms (1833−1897) with his towering masterpiece, Fourth Symphony in e minor, op. 98 (1884−85). Alongside the two German composers, there was Maurice Ravel (1875−1937) whose marvellous Piano Concerto in G (1929−31) provided a tour vehicle for Seong-Jin Cho who had stepped in for the indisposed Lang Lang.

While Strauss and Brahms make an obvious pairing for a Berlin orchestra, Ravel might seem an odd case in this company. Originally the program was to feature Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto (1930−31) but due to the soloist change, there was a change of programme as well. However, on the forthcoming tour, the soloist duties will be shared between Seong-Jin Cho and Yuja Wang, with the latter playing the Bartók of the original programme.

Still it must be said that the Ravel concerto was by no means an unfit pairing with the Strauss on the first half. After all, both composers showed a unique approach to rich orchestration and an unmistakble ability to mix different musical materials together to form a logical continuum.

Now, Richard Strauss is not the composer one would naturally associate with Simon Rattle. Yet over his Berlin years, Rattle has programmed Strauss tone poems every now and then, most notably Ein Heldenleben. And two years ago he conducted Der Rosenkavalier at the orchestra’s Easter home, the Baden-Baden Festival.

Don Juan is of course a solid part of the late romantic orchestral repertoire. While an immensely popular piece, it is a unique creation of a young composer at the age of twenty-four. Strauss’ contemporary Jean Sibelius heard Don Juan while studying in Berlin and expressed a mixture of admiration and frustration in his diary entry, crediting Strauss as a master while bashing himself for still nibbling away with counterpoint exercises.

As always with standard repertoire, even the most ravishing works are in danger of becoming overpolished showpieces of orchestral playing and conducting. Therefore it was a huge joy to hear the opening bars of Don Juan so wild and full of vigour on Saturday evening. The profound richness of the BPh sound was there as thorougly as ever, but this was not a mere showpiece but a fully charged orchestral journey.

After all, Don Juan is about an obsessive character whose self-centered search for a perfect object of desire clashes with realities and leads to, quite likely, more than a few cases of #metoo before leading to (in Nikolaus Lenau’s retelling of the story) Don Juan’s suicidal depression.

One could argue that Strauss was dealing with those very same emotional extremes as Gustav Mahler. The fact that on the surface Strauss was more openly programmatic about it should not lead us astray. His consciously anti-sentimental character has given rise to the simplified Mahler-Strauss dichtomies of profundity and opportunity so marvellously erratic.

Here on a Saturday evening, we had the Berliner Philharmoniker and Simon Rattle to lead us on a journey through the joyfully complex yet immedeately appealing Straussian universe of stunning originality.

The dynamic scale was there in full from the most weightless pianissimi to shattering fortissimos. The wonderful balance of transparency and lush prchestral sound captured the very essense of Strauss’ virtuosic orchestral writing. Rattle’s tempi were aptly energetic while never too hasty.

The orchestral playing was full of virtues from the marvellous warmth of the strings to all those splendid woodwind and brass parts, not forgetting the essential contribution of timpani and percussion. The abrupt changes in moods and dynamics were carried out with spot-on reactivity, and the utter desolation of those final bars made a lasting impression.

After the entuasiastic appaluse, almoast a half of the orchestra headed backstage as the stage was being set for the Mozartian proportions of the Concerto in G, composed between 1929 and 31 simultaneously with Ravel’s other take on the medium, Concerto for the Left Hand. The Concerto in G is a formidable mixture of jazz, folk music of Bretagne and Mozart all fused together in idiomatically Ravelian manner.

As one of the most popular concertos of the first half of the 20th century, the Concerto in G has been part of the repertoire of so many keyboard greats both in the concert hall and on record. As a personal take, I’ve enormously enjoyed hearing Krystian Zimerman and Pierre-Laurent Aimard on this piece, both with Pierre Boulez at the helm.

Like Boulez, Rattle is a master of French music, with a seemingly innate understanding of Ravelian sensibilities so very different from those of Debussy. As the recordings with Karajan, Boulez and Rattle himself demonstrate, the Berliners are very much at home with Ravel. Therefore the young Chopin Competition winner Seong-Jin Cho had the best company for his journey into Ravel.

And what a journey it was! The pinpoint accuracy of Seong-Jin Cho’s playing and the understanding of that Ravelian paradox of cool sentimentality, especially in the second movement, were exemplary. The witty playfulness and more than occasional irony of Ravel were sometimes still on the safe side with Seong-Jin Cho’s otherwise so very admirable pianism.

The orchestra and Rattle, on the other hand, gave us in every detail a most uplifting performance of this fabulous score. The marvellous energy and sharp rhythmic drive of the outer movements combined with timbral finesse resulted in the listener’s pure joy. And the subtle lyricism of the second movement was seamlessly wowen together with the piano part.

After the roaring applause Seong-Jin Cho sat down with his encore, Claude Debussy’s (1862−1918) Reflets dans l’eau (1905) from the first book of Images (1901−05). A spendid choice beautifully played.

On the second half of the evening, there was Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, one of the veritable giants of the repertoire. Brahms composed the conclusion to his symphonic output in 1884−85. Each of his four symphonies inhabit an universe of their own. In the Fourth Symphony Brahms fused together various idioms, from Bachian counterpoint to proto-Schoenbergian harmonies, into a brilliantly unified whole.

Brahms enters into his fourth symphonic dimension with the famous gently rocking pattern from which the material of the first movement begins to take various shapes and paths leading to the unexpected.

There is an intricate counterpoint with charged tensions throughout the movement requiring orchestral and conducting virtuosity in order to flow continuously within the symphonic superstructure of the music. This irresistible flow was thoughtfully realized by the orchestra with Rattle subtly steering at the helm. From the opening bars on the listener was swept away into the Brahmsian realm in a most inspiring way.

Nowdays one occasionally hears the first movement done with the four-bar introduction Brahms devised after finshing the movement and, as it should be noted, later dispensed with. Rattle and the BPh wisely relied on the standard edition of the score here.

The opening statement of the second movement, beautifully played by the third and fourth horn, set in motion quite likely the most autumnal symphonic movement in all orchestral literature. Full of subtle melancholy and passion, this is one of the most impressive slow movements of Brahms, so rich in colour and instrumental detail.

This universe of beauty and yearning was brought to life with immense delicacy and clarity by Rattle and the Berliners. There was no sign of that sonic overload which so often dampers the Brahmsian textures in a tradition of false pathos, still every now and then encountered among some ensembles and conductors.

The ideal mixture of rough earthiness and rhythmic agility provided a marvellous setup for the Scherzo. The orchestra embarked on a dance par excellence with Rattle’s clever pacing. Again this was not just a demonstration of orchestral agility but a real symphonic dance movement rooted in the vernacular.

The finale passacaglia was a case in point of letting the music speak for itself. In the score, Brahms launches a musical storm within a most intricate contrapuntal framework, creating a typically Brahmsian paradox of wildness and dicipline. It is absolutely essential to rid the music of all excess to solve that interpretative paradox. And that was just what the Berliner Philharmoniker and Rattle did in this Finale. As a result, the Brahmsian textures were drawn with idiomatic clarity and expression bringing the symphony to its staggering conlusion.

After a long and enthusiastic ovation the orchestra finally called it a day leaving the stage. As the audience kept applauding Rattle entered the stage for his bow. In his usual manner, Rattle still wanted to direct the applause to his musicians by turning around to the empty stage. A warm conclusion for a happy evening.

 

Berliner Philharmoniker

Sir Simon Rattle, conductor

Seong-Jin Cho, piano

Richard Strauss: Don Juan, op. 20 – Tone poem after Nikolaus Lenau (1888)
Maurice Ravel: Concerto in G for piano and orchestra (1929-31)
Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 4 in E minor, op 98 (1884-85)

Philharmonie Berlin

Saturday 4 November 2017, 7 pm

c Jari Kallio