United Kingdom Prom 64 – Rachmaninov, Stravinsky: Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 5.9.2014 (CC)
Rachmaninov: Symphonic Dances
Stravinsky: Firebird (1909/10)
A pair of well-contrasted evenings from one of the most welcome visitors at the Proms: the Berliner Philharmoniker and that great Proms favourite, Sir Simon Rattle. Neither presented the core Germanic Romantic repertoire one might expect: instead, Russian music was followed by staged Bach. Rattle continues to think outside the box.
That Rattle gleaned playing of (generally) magnificent identification with the Russian soul with staggering technical competence is testament to his bond with this orchestra – a bond that was clear at the end of the concert, which found the players enthusiastically applauding their conductor.
Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances is a late work (written in 1940; the composer died in 1943). It is one of Rachmaninov’s finest scores, taut of expression and beautifully, often darkly orchestrated. It was that dark aspect that seemed to resonate most with these players, and not just in the thicker lower registers: the macabre, spectre of a waltz that comprises the second movement was magnificently rendered to a completely silent, enraptured audience. The finale, with its Dies Irae (combined with a quote from the composer’s own All Night Vigil of 1915) is the perfect, consummate finale. Rachmaninov’s self-quotes (earlier in the work he looked back to the First Symphony) seem to point up the work’s late quality, penned in a time for self-reflection as well as one in which he could wallow in his achieved mastery of the orchestra. The Berlin orchestra’s link with Rattle is now so close that they seem to know what he wants almost before he does, which results in the ability to be astonishingly nuanced in phrasing. Occasionally, perhaps, the sound did veer towards the Germanic; but to balance this, at another times there seemed to be a specifically Russian darkness. Yet no matter how dingy the textures became, Rattle never lost detail (even in the Albert Hall acoustic). A major achievement.
……As was the performance of Stravinsky’s complete Firebird (1909/10). If ever there was music for revealing control (or lack), it is the opening of this piece. Here the low string quavers were delivered at a beautifully sustained low dynamic, creating the perfect atmosphere (Rattle opted to conduct every single quaver). The complete ballet must come as a revelation to those who only know the Suite, for there is passage upon passage of the utmost beauty and the most vibrant imagination, each responded to with chameleon reflexes by the orchestra. Rattle conducted by memory, no mean feat (but in fairness it is a work he has long been associated with). Rattle is not one to linger – the “Khorovod” was remarkably fleet – but he is one for precision, as the “Infernal Dance” proved beyond a doubt. Only in the “Lullaby” did really he allow himself extra space; the result was the most cogent complete Firebird this reviewer has experienced.
The dynamic range of the performance was an object lesson; from the blaze of the finale to the glacial pianissimo held chord at the end of the “Infernal Dance”. But more than this was the sheer rightness of the entire performance. The influence of Rimsky-Korsakov on Stravinsky was of course detectable, as was a French sense of transparency and delicacy, but Rattle ensured that what we experienced was the blossoming of Igor Stravinsky.
This is difficult to follow, but the close begs an encore and, after a little speech praising the inimitability of the Proms audience, he gave us the Intermezzo from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, beautifully delivered.
A stunning Prom from just about every angle.