Conductor: Sir Simon Rattle
Schoenberg: Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16
Webern: Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6b
Berg: Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6
Brahms: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73
In the nick of time! For way too long many good and not so good reasons had kept me from attending performances conducted by the one and only Sir Simon Rattle. This season, however, promised to be different as I was traveling to his current musical fief of Berlin in September and I had a ticket for a performance of Tristan und Isolde he would be conducting in New York in October.
Alas! Turned out that he was not conducting his Berlin Philharmonic when I was in the German capital because he was getting the Met orchestra ready for Tristan und Isolde in the Big Apple, and I was not able to attend Tristan und Isolde as originally planned because I would have been an undesirable coughing patron (I must admit, though, that I probably still benefited from his masterly touch when basking in the majestic performance of the orchestra he had trained to perfection).
On the other hand, I was not about to give up while the man was still in town. Therefore, as the end of his extended and busy New York residency was looming, I cleared my schedule and scored one of the last coveted tickets to his last performance ever conducting the Berlin Philharmonic as their artistic director at Carnegie Hall. The brainy and appealing program included classics from the Second Viennese School and Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, and the venue could not feel more like home, so it definitely looked like the curse was about to be lifted in the most memorable way possible.
In an obvious case of occasionally hard to wallow vegetables before a luscious dessert, the first part of the program was dedicated to masterpieces of the Second Viennese School. Before the concert started, Simon Rattle informed the sold-out and particularly eclectic audience that the works from Schoenberg, Webern and Berg would be played as a single piece – possibly Mahler’s 11th symphony – and asked us to refrain from applauding until the end, at which point, he quickly added with deadpan aplomb, it would be “just fine”.
So we dutifully kept quiet throughout all 14 movements, seamlessly moving from Arnold Schoenberg’s resolutely bold Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16, to Anton Webern’s eerily transparent Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6b, to Alan Berg’s tension-filled Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6, the differences between the three composers establishing themselves organically as the journey through early 20th century Vienna ineluctably progressed.
The first shock wave from the ground-breaking movement came with Schoenberg, whose exploration of the subconscious led to compositions that essentially left out tonality and melodies while still managing to vividly express ideas and emotions. Years ago my introduction to his œuvre was Pierrot Lunaire, which I found stunningly off-putting, followed a few months later by Verklärte Nacht, which I found stunningly beautiful. On Thursday night, the wide range of unpredictable sounds, subtle colors and elusive concepts of his Five Pieces for Orchestra was meticulous articulated and dexterously rendered for a totally engaging opener.
Anton Webern, one of Schoenberg’s most gifted students, was next with six spell-binding miniatures whose main characteristic was to pack a mightily effective punch in their incredibly tiny size. Fearlessly minimalist, delicately poetic and endlessly surprising, Six Pieces for Orchestra had the audience’s intrigued attention continually perked up as they kept coming up with fleeting images such as a sweet lullaby, a dark haunted house and a grim funeral march. Performed with cool finesse and infallible precision, the shortest and quietest episode of the triptych ended up being its most eloquent.
Alan Berg, the other fiercely gifted student of Schoenberg’s, brought us to the finish line with his intellectually stimulating, but more readily accessible Three Pieces for Orchestra. The playing got markedly more muscular, but never lost its unwavering attention to detail, and assuredly transported us through the impressionistic "Prelude", the agitated "Round Dance" and the resounding "March". Mahler would have certainly approved. As for me, the orchestra's exceptionally brilliant performance was a revelation. While I have admired and respected the movement and the works associated to it, on Thursday night I found myself genuinely enjoying the entire 50-minute experience.
After intermission, Brahms’ majestic Symphony No. 2 sounded even more richly lyrical than usual, its rigorously crafted structure receiving the royal treatment from an orchestra that clearly could do no wrong. Simon Rattle had the musicians at his fingertips and drew a grandly sweeping, expertly polished and superbly nuanced performance from them. Although it is a repertoire staple that they all have probably played multiple times, they stayed away from cruise control and effortlessly succeeded in keeping the music joyful, fresh and engaging. And they have our bottomless gratitude for bringing two hours of direly needed escapism, beauty, solace and hope into a seriously distressing week.