Convincing Rite of Spring from Rattle


AustriaAustria Salzburg Festival (9) – Schoenberg, Berg, and Stravinsky: Barbara Hannigan (soprano), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 26.8.2013 (MB)

SchoenbergVerklärte Nacht, op.4
BergThree Fragments from ‘Wozzeck’, op.7
StravinskyThe Rite of Spring


Had I been asked beforehand which part – ‘half’ would be a little misleading – of this concert would most likely be more successful, I should have said the first. Sir Simon Rattle has long proved a fine advocate for the music of the Second Viennese School. Not that he has no name in Stravinsky, but, without having heard his recent Berlin recording of The Rite of Spring, I have had heard negative whispers, indeed rather more than whispers. As it happened, whilst there was much to admire in both parts, the Rite ultimately proved more convincing.

Verklärte Nacht benefited from a wonderful hush to its opening, the build up to Rattle’s unleashing of the full Berlin Philharmonic string tone carefully but not irritatingly handled. What a relief it was to have flexibility yet not to suffer the arbitrary micro-management that nowadays seems to bedevil all of his Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, and much else. There was variegation to the Berliners’ playing too, though as time went on, there was a surprising tendency to the homogeneous, as if they were being directed by Karajan on a bad day. (At his best, of course, Karajan was a superlative conductor in this repertoire.) Turbulence registered in the bass: there were times when I even thought of Schopenhauer’s idea, partially adopted by Wagner, of music as the representation of the Will. (Schoenberg’s relationship with Schopenhauer, not entirely incidentally, was complex, and subject to considerable change.

Last year, I worked in the Arnold Schoenberg Center, deciphering and reading the composer’s marginal annotations, and have an article in mind on that very relationship, when time permits.) Perhaps there was a slight tendency towards rushing at climaxes, but at least the performance was not staid. Indeed, its propulsive quality, especially during the first half, painted Schoenberg very much as a modernist rather than mere ‘late Romantic’. Alas, that energy petered out somewhat during the second half, which, astonishingly, bore little sign of transfiguration, let alone of ‘Viennese’ sweetness. An increasing edge to the Berlin strings went hand in hand with a resolutely earthbound turn – a pity, a real pity. The audience, however, was enthusiastic; it may have been relieved not to have heard, say, the Variations for Orchestra, op.31.

The ever excellent Barbara Hannigan joined the orchestra for Berg’s Three Fragments from ‘Wozzeck’. Part of the problem here lay with the piece, or rather the extraction, itself; I am sure it served its purpose once, but now one simply misses what is not there. It seems to convince more when performed without a soloist; here, there is something odd about a single soloist taking the parts of Marie, the children’s chorus, and Marie’s son, an oddness that adds to the sense of arbitrary disjuncture.

That said, the first piece was wonderful. The BPO opened with a sadness that suggested nostalgia and yet went beyond it. Mahlerian militaristic parody soon added edge, lest one fear self-indulgence. Hannigan’s command of diction and meaning was second to none, and so far as I could tell, was pitch-perfect too, quite a change from many performances one hears. Nietzsche’s ‘voluptuousness of Hell’ (of Tristan) was certainly to be heard in the final stanza, as the child fell to sleep – a rich irony in more than one sense. In the second piece the terror of realisation, of shame and sin, proved as searing as it could out of context, Hannigan’s part enhanced by the sweetest of violin solos.

Rattle for the most part handled the ensuing transformation very well, Berg’s phantasmagorical colours finely balanced between precision and something approaching its eerie opposite. The great climax was extremely powerful, yet it did not quite register with the dramatic force for which one hopes; perhaps that was a matter of the fragments themselves, but there seemed a partial lack of identification with Berg’s post-Mahlerian truth, both from conductor and orchestra. Hannigan’s final ‘Hopp, hopp! Hopp, hopp!’ chilled, even if it sounds odd not to come from a child’s voice.

The Rite of Spring opened beautifully, indeed in many respects quite mesmerisingly. Its introduction teemed with life, with strong echoes of Debussy, with strangeness too. ‘Life’ and ‘automation’ vied for the upper hand throughout. Old Russia was there too, not least from the tuned percussion – Rimsky-Korsakov can rarely have sounded so close; likewise, and perhaps more tellingly, Mussorgsky. Nor did Rattle’s Rite lack wildness, as one might have feared; growling and grinding offered real rhythmic savagery. Compared with Esa-Pekka Salonen’s staggering recent performance, there was not a true sense of being newly minted, but by ‘normal’ standards, this was an estimable account. The sheer volume and weight of sound from the BPO at the end of the first part was quite something to hear in itself.

Perhaps I was being fanciful, but at the opening of the second part, I heard correspondences – surprising correspondences – with the opening of the Berg fragments. Sadness seemed to be held in common, despite the alleged ‘impersonality’ – always exaggerated – of Stravinsky’s ballet. Music of real delicacy followed, Stravinsky’s cellular construction always readily apparent: through, not despite, his use of folk melodies. (Boulez would surely have approved, if his celebrated analysis is anything to go by. So too, I imagine, would have Bartók.) The contrast when full orchestral weight was unleashed had dramatic force beyond any that had been heard before the interval. Strangeness rightly persisted too, though, not least from the splendidly versatile string section. The final sacrifice, however, proved as earthbound – in the wrong sense – as the end of Verklärte Nacht had. A mysteriously frustrating close.

Mark Berry


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