The Berlin Philharmonic’s Second Prom Fails to Live Up to Expectations


United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 66 – Anderson, Dvořák, Brahms: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle (Conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London. 3.9.2016. (LB)

Julian Anderson Incantesimi  (UK Premiere)
Dvořák – Slavonic Dances Op.46 (1878)
Brahms – Symphony No.2 in D major, Op.73 (1877)

If the hyperbolic media reporting of recent events like the Euro 2016 football tournament and the Olympic games provides a reasonable barometer of public opinion, then it suggests that we are a nation obsessed with the notion of stardom, super-stardom and celebrity. Where team sports and collective endeavour are concerned, this is obviously pernicious, since it devalues the efforts of everyone else, as well as undermining the self-esteem of those whose contribution is critical to success of such collective human activity. Furthermore, it critically precludes the possibility for more measured and objective analysis.

That similarly exaggerated language has begun to be introduced into musical debate, by well meaning, but ultimately ill-informed, and unfortunately influential commentators, is regrettable therefore. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, a regular visitor to the BBC Proms, continues to be the object of a barrage of such hyperbole, and is in current parlance presented to the public as a ‘super-orchestra’. This incendiary epithet naturally raises many questions, as well as setting up possibly unrealistic expectations.

Does the Berlin Philharmonic of 2016 sound anything like the celebrated Berlin Philharmonic of yesteryear, and what, if anything, distinguishes it from other especially good orchestras around the world today? What is common knowledge though, is that the Berlin Philharmonic is an incredibly well paid orchestra that also enjoys superb conditions within which to pursue its music making. Otherwise, it remains a traditionally hierarchical organization, with the best and best-paid musicians inhabiting the front desks of the orchestra, and with their maestro at the helm.

The Albert Hall was packed to the rafters for their concert this evening; this was, after all, one of the Proms that sold out within minutes of tickets going on sale, and from the excited chatter in the front of house bars, and the long queue of promenaders waiting patiently in the rain, expectations were high.

Simon Rattle continues to champion British music in Berlin, and this evening Julian Anderson enjoyed the privilege of having his Incantesimi performed by the Berliners, in front of his home crowd.

Incantesimi, jointly commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society, the Berlin Philharmonic Foundation and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is an eleven minute-long nocturne for orchestra, ‘that has five musical ideas in perpetual orbit’ and received its UK premiere this evening. As a nocturne it is idiomatically significantly distant from the romantic intimacy and poignant interior sentiment associated with those of Chopin or John Field, although it is dreamlike in its own special way, employing overt symbolism and with extrinsic intellectual justification.

Conductor and orchestra launched into the piece with relish, effectively integrating the harmonious with the acerbic, cacophony with consonance and the two offstage trumpets who made their presence felt from a balcony way above the platform, could easily have deceived the audience into expecting a traditional final fanfare. As it turned out Incantesimi ended somewhat abruptly, and the recurring three clicks on the high Japanese woodblock, signaling the all clear from the Japanese night watchman on his rounds, will remain an enduring memory.

Next came Dvořák’s eight Slavonic Dances, Op.46. Richly infused with national dance rhythms and infectious in character these idiomatic dances enjoy the potential for inducing collective foot tapping.

Performing eight dances in succession presents much the same logistical challenges as a concert of Strauss waltzes, with each piece fundamentally the same, but also completely different. There are numerous subtle, as well as precipitous, changes of tempi, many repeat signs, dal segnos and other navigational challenges that require a distinctly heightened level of alertness.

Simon Rattle conducted these dances from memory, but his logistic self-assurance did not always extend to fulfilling Dvořák’s idiomatic challenge. Vivacity does not necessarily depend solely on speed, and some uncharacteristically brisk tempi were at times in danger of defeating the deceptive complexity at the core of the music.

The audience applauded heartily in between dances, treating each as a musical event in its own right, but it wasn’t until the final dance, with the interval in sight, that the orchestra finally properly burst into life, and finished the set with a flourish.

Compared to his First Symphony, bedeviled by the weight of expectation, and fifteen years in gestation, Brahms’s Second Symphony is rather more joyous, and certainly no less profound. Its four movements exude the confidence of the forty-four year-old Brahms and the symphony has been likened to Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ for its genial character.

Although premiered by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in 1877, under the baton of Hans Richter, the Berlin Philharmonic has enjoyed a long and distinguished relationship with this, and all of Brahms’s symphonies, under successive music directors.

Rattle’s concept of the piece is markedly different from anything preceding his tenure, and this evening’s performance faced the same stylistic and idiomatic challenges as the Dvořák had before the interval. Though fluent and immaculate in most respects, the injection of pace again proved to be a poor substitute for profundity.

Having spent the better part of an evening in the company of a ‘super-orchestra’ I did not come away convinced that we had been overwhelmed by superior technical or musical wizardry, neither did it feel as if we had been party to a special event; the musical temperature never exceeded lukewarm, but fleeting moments of brilliance hinted at what might have been.

Reports reached me of a magnificent performance of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony on the preceding evening, and I wondered whether the orchestra was merely tired.

Leon Bosch

2 thoughts on “The Berlin Philharmonic’s Second Prom Fails to Live Up to Expectations”

  1. I can assure Mr Bosch that he didn’t miss much in Rattle’s Mahler 7 ‘on the preceding evening’. I watched it on a TV relay where the cameras zoomed in on individual players, and on Rattle, with his repertoire of the most grotesque facial grimaces and somatic contortions. I could detect no correspondence between Rattle’s antic gestures and what the orchestra was playing. Indeed, the players hardly looked at Rattle. And the playing was certainly not what one would expect from a ‘super orchestra’, with occasional messy ensemble. But the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra has a whole history of being branded a ‘super orchestra’. Could I suggest that Mr Bosch read Misha Aster’s ‘The Reich’s Orchestra’. It goes into detail of how especially Goebbels moulded it into a super Nazi orchestra with Furtwängler as their dirigent. This notion of a super orchestra was carried on to a certain extent in the Karajan years.

    As for Mr Bosch’s comments on our own fixation on celebrity culture, the commodification of culture etc, go to Theodor Adorno’s ‘The Culture Industry’, in which he sees this process of ‘standardisation’, ‘reification’ of culture’ as a species of ‘soft fascism’ – think of the pathological narcissism of the phenomenon of the ‘selfie’, the glorification of the individual, from micro to macro, as a kind of reinvention the Nazi ‘Führerprinzip’. Adorno was also critical of the way that ‘classical’ music was being increasingly dumbed down (reified) into the ‘best bits’, ‘chill-out’ music,’easy-listening.’ Also, how increasingly the ‘classical’ performer is prized for their looks, youth etc. A CD with a size 8 air-brushed soprano or violinist on the cover as a good selling point, etc. Think of Flagstad, Myra Hess, or Klemperer, all superb musicians; did we ever appreciate them for their looks?

    I am particularly critical of the way BBC commentators, with ‘gushing enthusiasm’ treat every Prom performance as sensational, unique, as a ‘stunning’ performance. Every Prom as ‘special’, as ‘amazing’. All alluded to by Mr Bosch. The whole Proms packaging – not just the BBC – is a highly ideological enterprise – its failures, cavernous acoustic, lack of ventilation, noisy audience sounds etc. hardly mentioned.

  2. Dear Geoff,

    Thank you for your very thoughtful comments, and book recommendations. I am aware of Aster’s ‘The Reich’s Orchestra’ but have just ordered Adorno’s ‘The Culture Industry’.

    Best wishes,



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