Rattle and Hun

Wassily Kandinsky, Romantic Landscape

Rattle and Hun

Sir Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic, Staatsoper, Unter Den Linden, Berlin, December 2017: Stravinsky, Petrushka, Rachmaninov, Symphony No. 3 in A minor. Staatskapelle Berlin, conducted by François-Xavier Roth, Konzerthauss, Berlin. Reviewed by TONY COOPER

Sergei Rachmaninov wrote his Third Symphony in 1936, whilst living in Switzerland where he had a home located just outside of Hertenstein, near Lake Lucerne. Named Villa Senar, it was the composer’s summer residence for most of the 1930s. He died in 1943, after emigrating to the United States and, apparently, wishing to be buried at Senar. But the Second World War thwarted his wishes.

Rachmaninov’s three symphonies reflect different phases in his creative development. The First (written in 1895) conjures up a stormy combination of contemporary trends in Russian symphonic music, whilst the Second (1907) reflects the opulence of the music of Tchaikovsky. The Third Symphony, first heard in Britain in November 1937 with the London Philharmonic under Sir Thomas Beecham, saw the light of day a year earlier with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Critical opinion was divided. Public opinion proved negative but the composer remained convinced of its worth.

An excellent symphony in its conception, composition and orchestration, Rachmaninov rated it one of his finest works. It was written after a harrowing and difficult decade following exile from his Russian homeland. Its lukewarm reception was a huge disappointment to him.

He would not have been disappointed with this performance by Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, however. The players received a rousing reception from a packed house at curtain-call. The dance-inspired rhythms of the last movement were superbly played. The ‘scherzo’ in the central movement, featuring the ‘quiet’ instruments of the orchestra: celesta, harp and woodwind – a lovely and rhythmic passage of the entire work – was masterfully executed. In so many ways, the Third’s melodic outline (especially in the first movement) and its rhythmic patterns epitomises the composer’s expressive and richly-textured Russian style.

Stravinsky’s Petrushka opened the Berlin Phil’s concert. It was first performed as a ballet by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, at the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, in June 1911. The scenario concerns the loves and jealousies of three puppets and possesses a lavish and strong score. The Berlin Phil captured the excitement of the piece in the scene depicting the Shrovetide Fair in St Petersburg which sees the puppets brought to life by the charlatan showman. As an encore, Simon Rattle chose a piece from the opera repertoire, the ‘Intermezzo’ from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. It drew some rich and tender playing from the strings.

Incidentally, the Berlin Phil becomes the second guest orchestra to perform in the renovated Staatsoper in Unter den Linden. A couple of concerts were staged earlier featuring the ‘house band’ Staatskapelle Berlin under Daniel Barenboim with the second (Konzert für Berlin) also featuring the Vienna Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta.

It has been a long, hard slog restoring the Staatsoper to its 18th-century opulence and glory – just over seven years, in fact. During that time the company has been quartered in the Schiller Theatre in Bismarckstraße, a stone’s-throw away from Deutsche Oper. Now, thankfully, it is back in its old stamping-ground.

As part of a short stay in the German capital, we also took in a performance by Staatskapelle Berlin under François-Xavier Roth in the Konzerthaus, conveniently situated just round the corner from Staatsoper. French violinist Renaud Capuçon dazzled the audience in a marvellous rendering of Bartók’s masterful Second Violin Concerto. Composed in 1937-38, it received its première at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw in March 1939, with Zoltán Székely as soloist.

Although not engaging in a twelve-tone technique, the piece contains twelve-tone themes particularly heard in the first and third movements. But it was the second movement (Andante tranquillo) that was most appealing, with Renaud Capuçon producing bar after bar of effortless playing.

Opening Staatskapelle’s programme was a lively interpretation of Paul Dukas’ symphonic poem, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Der Zauberlehrling), inspired by Goethe’s well-loved poem of 1797. This work gained popular appeal when used in Walt Disney’s 1940s animated film, Fantasia, with Mickey Mouse playing the apprentice, while the sorcerer, Yen Sid, was Disney spelt backwards.

Stravinsky opened the Berlin Phil’s concert, and François-Xavier Roth also closed  with Stravinsky, with the Staatskapelle delivering an exciting rendering of The Firebird written for the 1910 Paris season of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes at the Opéra de Paris. Stravinsky took the best bits from the score he wrote for the ballet – which tells a Russian mythological story about a prince and a princess menaced by strange magical creatures – for the orchestral suite which premièred in 1919.

The work is a tour-de-force for the brass and percussion section in the final bars. Here, the players of the Staatskapelle proved their worth with some excellent playing, highlighting the arrival of the Firebird in all her glory imploring everyone to dance until they fall down in a calm and deep sleep. Such are fairy tales.

The Staatsoper programme is available at https://www.staatsoper-berlin.de/

Tony Cooper is QR‘s opera critic

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