Rattle and the Berlin Phil Impress with Motley Programme in Zurich

SwitzerlandSwitzerland  Debussy, Dvorak, Schönberg, Elgar: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle(conductor), Tonhalle, Zurich 20.12.2012 (JR)

Debussy: Prélude à l’Après-Midi d’un Faune
Dvorak : Golden Spinning Wheel
Schönberg : Verklärte Nacht
Elgar: Enigma Variations


The Berliners are on tour, stopping off in Zurich on their way to New York. In Zurich they repeated a concert given in Berlin three times last week with some pieces audibly dear to Simon Rattle’s heart (and all played without a score). All the pieces were composed in a ten-year period, from 1890 to 1900, and it was fascinating to compare them in that light.

In New York, after a repeat of this concert, they will also serve far meatier fare, Bruckner’s Ninth. I was however happy, even as a Bruckner aficionado, not to hear my umpteenth Bruckner’s Ninth but more varied pieces showing off the orchestra’s very special talents. A Berlin critic last week felt rather short-changed with this programme, yearning for a Beethoven Seventh for some added gravitas.

The concert opened with Emmanuel Pahud’s shimmering golden flute in the Prelude à l’Après-Midi d’un Faune. (Next to him sat principal oboist Jonathan Kelly whom Rattle brought from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra) It was all breathtakingly beautiful and languorous and kept the audience rapt. From the gossamer harps to the luxuriant strings, one could not fail to be impressed by the playing of this top-notch orchestra. Rattle revelled in the music’s dreaminess and glowing sound.

Simon Rattle copyright Jim Rakete

Dvorak’s Golden Spinning Wheel, whilst sonorous and lush, is little played in concert. I can see why. Even the Berlin Philharmonic could not convince me (and others I spoke to in the interval) of its worth. All one can say is that the boisterous passages showed off the orchestra’s talents, especially the furious and joyful ending; otherwise it was easy, but – especially in the central passage – rather boring listening. Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances have all the same qualities but with the added one of brevity.

Rattle then served an aptly neurotic account of Schönberg’s string-orchestra version of Verklärte Nacht (originally a string sextet, which many prefer). The large body of strings often gave the piece a rich and romantic sound. In passages played by just a few strings, the music was suitably eerie, in the lush full-blooded sections the back desks worked visibly and audibly as hard as the front desks, always paying full attention to rhythm, and the sound was overwhelming. By the end, the audience seemed drained of energy, fascinated by the closing ethereal bars.

How satisfying and heart-warming for this concert to close and impress with British music, Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Zurichers had heard the same piece with Mark Elder and the Tonhalle Orchestra not many weeks ago. Rattle’s interpretation brought out the modernist discordant elements of the piece and various details, normally unheard, were ravishing: the lush strings in Variation 5, the gunfire timpani and helter-skelter violins in Variation 7. Nimrod was suitably weighty after a wonderfully hushed opening. And the Finale brought the work to a tub-thumping close, brought the house down and the roaring audience to their feet.

In their last tour of this season, in May, the Berliners will travel to Vienna and Paris, under conductor Gustavo Dudamel, playing Beethoven’s Fifth and Also sprach Zarathustra.

John Rhodes