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Berlin Philharmonic – mixed reviews of US tour

November 26th, 2009

James Oestreich the critic of the “New York Times” wrote that during the recent Berlin Philharmonic’s concert “upstairs” at Carnegie Hall, the concert from Zankel Hall underneath Carnegie Hall could be heard and “wafted through the auditorium”. That means in the background of Brahms 4th symphony, one could hear a concert of Cape Verdean music with percussion and, yes, amplification!

While I cannot comment on his professional competencies as a critic – I respect very much his naming names! In this case the two horn-players who are mentioned below. While the hero-conductor is always mentioned…….the actual players who “carry the piano” are always anonymous. Good for Mr James Oestreich to start this trend!!!

He wrote further : “ Rhythms and pitches were vaguely audible not only between movements of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony but also over the playing, adding syncopations to the composer’s own.” “Those distractions aside, Mr. Rattle’s readings of Brahms’s Second Symphony on Thursday and the Third and Fourth on Friday (the First was reviewed in these pages on Friday) were altogether more compelling than his Mahler performances with the orchestra at Carnegie two years ago. There he seemed to be laboring to extract performances forcibly from the players; here he seemed more inclined simply to let them play.

And play Brahms this orchestra can, as it has shown repeatedly in Carnegie Hall cycles (if such proof were needed). It seems more an orchestra of individuals than it used to be, certainly during the Herbert von Karajan years, when sonorities were polished and wind and brass choirs balanced to within an inch of their lives.

Here individual instruments sometimes jutted out from the ensemble like cowlicks, contributing to what often seemed a teeming conversation. There were plenty of stellar moments from orchestral soloists, especially from the principal horn players, Radek Baborak and Stefan Dohr.

If Mr. Rattle’s laissez-faire approach had a downside, it was that almost everything was half a notch louder that it needed to be. Fortissimos were sometimes overblown and slightly muddy, and there were few sustained pianissimos.” [end of New York Times review]

The critic of the “Dallas Morning News”, a certain Mr Scott Cantrell seemed  less impressed and though fair, was a little less kind.   He wrote:

“Legends aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be. Witness the Berlin Philharmonic, at least as heard Friday night at Carnegie Hall. One of the world’s most-recorded orchestras, the Berlin has numbered Hans von Bülow, Wilhelm Furtwängler, von Karajan and Abbado among its music directors. Since 2002 the incumbent has been Sir  Simon Rattle who, having made his name with England’s City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, had been courted by numerous other top orchestras. All has not been happy between Sir Simon and the Berlin, according to press reports.

But just last month the orchestra, governed by its musicians, extended his contract through 2018. Friday’s concert was the last of three interspersing the four Brahms symphonies with pieces by  Arnold Schoenberg– a great Brahms admirer.

Friday’s program split the Third and Fourth symphonies with a real Schoenberg curio, an Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene.

Of the Brahms performance Mr Cantrell wrote: “In the Brahms symphonies, alas, Rattle didn’t so much conduct as wave his hands like a conjurer. The results were not thoughtful, carefully organized performances but collections of tricks. Even with tempos seeming to shift with each new theme, the music often felt mired in sludge.

Repeated tuggings at transitions further sapped forward impulses. Balances seemed haphazard – when, that is, Rattle wasn’t overemphasizing this or that inner voice. Long after other conductors were writing quadruple fortes, conservative Brahms marked nothing louder than a simple fortissimo in his symphonies.

But Rattle repeatedly whipped climaxes into raw, crude assaults that would be vulgar even in Shostakovich. Double basses were often too loud, and surprisingly careless about pitches, and even winds weren’t always fastidiously tuned. It didn’t help that the Fourth Symphony had to compete with a gradual crescendo of thumping bass from somewhere else.”

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