Rakhmaninov – Колокола (The Bells)
Stravinsky – Звездоликий (Le Roi des étoiles)
Stravinsky – Le Sacre du printemps
Luba Orgonášová (sop) Dmytro Popov (ten), Mikhail Petrenko (bass)
Rundfunkchor Berlin (prepared by Simon Halsey)
Berliner Philharmoniker / Simon Rattle.
Philharmonie, Berlin. Friday, November 9th, 2012.
First of all I’d like to get something off of my chest. I find that audiences in Berlin rival those in Spain for annoying the hell out of me. There was one guy, sitting behind the stage, who insisted on taking photos with flash and talking to his girlfriend. Then there were the people behind me who found it necessarily to talk at every possible opportunity. But the worst was the French woman who, on seeing the empty seat next to me, insisted on sitting in it even though the music was playing. So rather than wait for the pause between movements, she just sat there and ruined my impression of that first reply of the chorus to the tenor solo in The Bells.
It was a real shame because I love that moment and it gives you a real sense of where the performance is headed. It’s also a shame because Dmytro Popov’s tenor was really well matched to the music. Otherwise, it was an enjoyable enough performance of a piece that sometimes seems to overstay its welcome to me. Tonight, I actually felt it too short and wished that Rakhmaninov had perhaps developed the last movement in particular a bit more. The Rundfunkchor Berlin perhaps lacked the ultimate in Russian bass sound and at times, especially in the third movement, had some trouble being heard over the orchestra. Still, the blend was outstanding, I just wish that there had been a few more of them. Luba Orgonášová (remember her?) has lost nothing of her silvery tone and was perfectly cast as the soprano solo. Finally, Mikhail Petrenko delivered the bass solo in a perfectly intoned ink-black tone fully alive to the text. The orchestra played extremely well.
The King of the Stars showed the Rundfunkchor Berlin at its very best. The orchestration being a little less dense allowed the gentlemen of the chorus to be heard perfectly and the almost impossible writing was perfectly done.
The real meat of this concert though came in an outstanding rendition of the Rite of Spring. This is the second performance of this piece that I have heard in a month and it had everything the other performance was lacking. When I heard Nagano and the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, I was struck how he brought out the inner voices, the strange orchestration inherent in the piece, yet seemed unwilling to let his fabulous orchestra off the leash and allow them to exceed what they even thought possible. There were no such issues tonight. Rattle just pushed his orchestra harder and harder and the effect was stunning. It was sensationally played and brought out things I had never even noticed before. Some might think it overly loud and brash – yet there was great subtlety there – the start of the second part for instance. The entire string section seemed to live and breathe as one person and if I had to select one section for particular praise then it must be the horns who were superb. Even then, the entire orchestra was firing on all cylinders and Rattle simply enabled them to exceed what they even thought possible. The other thing that struck me is that Rattle really managed to emphasize the fact that this is dance music, albeit of incredible rhythmic complexity. The music had a ‘swing’ to it that was really quite captivating.
This was a superb performance of a work that was once considered unplayable and now is a repertoire staple. But it was something else – it was a performance by an orchestra at the peak of its powers, a body of people who live and breathe the music as one. It’s available in the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall and I recommend anyone who loves this work to look it up. I am incredibly lucky to have seen two very memorable concerts of theirs in the last two months.