By DAVID ALLENNOV.
Simon Rattle led the Berlin Philharmonic in Beethoven’s nine symphonies over five nights at Carnegie Hall. CreditTina Fineberg for The New York Times
Claudio Abbado. Herbert von Karajan. Wilhelm Furtwängler. You are weighed upon golden scales, if you are the chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. And for good or ill, the balance tilts hardest in what is still thought of as classical music’s core repertoire: Mahler, nowadays; Brahms, naturally; Beethoven, forever.
To many ears, Simon Rattle has rarely been the most natural conductor of that music. Since he took charge at the Philharmonic in 2002, he has successfully broadened the idea of what his orchestra should play, from early music to contemporary commissions. Yet from Tuesday to Saturday, over five largely sold-out nights at Carnegie Hall, he and his orchestra presented nothing more innovative than a Beethoven cycle — a strong, often breathtaking, ultimately frustrating one at that.
A Beethoven cycle? Again?
Yes, a Beethoven cycle, a mere 1,017 days after the last one at Carnegie ended with an incandescent Ninth from Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. These cycles serve multiple purposes: They are an entry point for new listeners, a summation for experienced hands, often a promotional tour for recordings, and usually a target for critics. (I, along with what the hall estimated as 300 to 400 other patrons, heard all five concerts.) Just as Beethoven’s Nine elevated the symphony into what one contemporary called “the highest genre of instrumental music,” performing them all, together and intensively, has always held a special allure. The cycle has become a summit to be mounted over and over and over again.
Simon Rattle, conducting the Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall last week,CreditTina Fineberg for The New York Times
Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra made the first ascent in 1825-26. If that was a radical departure in concert culture, its successors no longer are. The list of conductors who have led complete (or near-complete) cycles at Carnegie Hall is forbiddingly lofty: Damrosch, Mahler, Toscanini, Walter, Wallenstein, Masur, Abbado, Harnoncourt and Barenboim. Mr. Rattle’s cycle was at least the 16th heard at the corner of Seventh Avenue and 57th Street since 1908. The head says that our musical life is too firmly rooted in events like these, but the heart demands they be heard.
“One could have wished that they had brought other programs with them,” a critic for The New York Times wrote in 1965 when Karajan conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in the Nine at Carnegie. (Plus ça change.) However impressive an innovator Mr. Rattle has been, he is similarly addicted to a dull completism. In deliberate, methodical fashion, he has ticked off the Mahler, Sibelius, Brahms and Schumann symphonies in recent seasons. Concluding a tour that also visited Vienna and Paris, this cycle was part of his fourth set of Beethoven traversals, after a 1995 attempt with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, a work-in-progress recorded effort with the Vienna Philharmonic in 2001-2, and a 2008 series with this band. For Mr. Rattle, Beethoven remains, as he said in an interview posted in the Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall, the “absolute center of everything we do,” the core of “what an orchestra is, what a musician is.”
Watching these players sweat their way through these symphonies, using every muscle to make them dramas of sight as well as sound, you could believe it. Throughout, their commitment was palpable, their energy persuasive, their ability to communicate with one another superior. From moment to moment, one could marvel at a dark, thumping attack in the double basses, or an astonishing calibration of dynamics, or the way a phrase was passed around the principal woodwinds — each time familiar, each time altered in a minute but telling way.
At Carnegie Hall, the orchestra was powerful yet small.CreditTina Fineberg for The New York Times
Yet the cycle as a whole was not the last word in subtlety or structural command, let alone philosophical vision. A combative Second, a brutal Fifth and a pitiless Seventh were as supremely played as the First, Third, Fourth and Eighth, but they benefited from an added edge of aggression. If the Westminster Symphonic Choir shone in the Ninth, that only showed how tired the orchestral part was, ragged by the group’s exalted standards. Only the “Pastoral” was marred by Mr. Rattle’s tendency to alternate between pinpoint brush strokes and smears of indistinct color.
Beethoven cycles might seem simple to conceive, if not to play or conduct, but they aren’t. There’s the issue of order. Should they be played chronologically? Or in pairs that contrast or coalesce? Mr. Rattle went for the latter: First and Third; Second and Fifth; Eighth and Sixth; Fourth and Seventh; and Ninth. Plenty of conductors fill out the concerts with an overture or two, but which ones? Quirkily, Mr. Rattle dug out the rarely heard “Leonore No. 1,” and that alone. And then there’s context. Vanishingly few conductors dare program Beethoven with his historical contemporaries, to show just what made him exceptional. Our contemporaries are another matter. Conductors such as Riccardo Chailly and Mariss Jansons have buffed up their Beethoven by programming it alongside new work by composers asked to “respond” to or “reflect” on the symphonies — a dubious notion that Mr. Rattle avoided here.
Solve those problems, and there’s a beguiling aesthetic question left: How to play the Beethoven? Each of the Philharmonic’s chiefs has taken it in a new direction, from the Wagnerian Beethoven ofFurtwängler, to the glossy, jet-age Beethoven of Karajan, to the lyrical flow of Abbado. Even more than Abbado was, Mr. Rattle, like many current musicians, is influenced by the diverse textual and interpretive insights of scholar-conductors like John Eliot Gardiner and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. In this, he is no longer a radical.
Mainstream the approach may be, but to hear the Berlin Philharmonic play this way is still a visceral jolt. At Carnegie, the orchestra was powerful yet small, with no more than six double basses and 12 first violins before the Ninth. Vibrato was never eradicated, but never the norm. Long phrases in the Second and Sixth scraped at the ear, but the broadened palette often paid off, particularly in the opening bars of the Seventh’s Allegretto, where levels of vibrato and volume matched in a seamless drive.
Speeds, too, were courageous, often too much so. The finale of the Seventh, for instance was blistered and raw, but it took a scorched-earth strategy to important rhythms that demand precision strikes. In the First and Third, unexpected darts from the podium toward the violas and second violins seemed designed more to keep the orchestra on its toes than to serve symphonic argument.
This was Beethoven as shock therapy, and while undeniably impressive, it left a good deal unresolved. Moments lingered in the memory more than movements: the oboist Jonathan Kelly’s wrenching plea for calm in the first movement of the Fifth; the majesty of the horn calls in the “Eroica,” as if combat were the grandest of callings; the mellow glow that sang from the clarinets of Andreas Ottensamer and Wenzel Fuchs.
Missing was an insistent, unifying spirit, which was precisely what Mr. Barenboim brought to his didactic cycle here in 2013. We may be more loyal to Beethoven’s scores than ever before, but we are disloyal to his most profound, revolutionary idea: Music can change the world. That’s understandable, even necessary, given the two centuries that separate us from Beethoven. But climbing the mountain again and again just “because it’s there,” as George Mallory said of Everest, should no longer be enough.