Even before the Berlin Philharmonic played a single note Monday or Tuesday night at Disney Hall, the audience whooped and hollered when Music Director Sir Simon Rattle walked on stage. So you can imagine the audience reaction after the orchestra actually played.
With Gustavo Dudamel in the audience for both performances, the orchestra performed works by Brahms and Schoenberg with an overture by Wagner thrown in for good measure. Monday’s concert began with Schoenberg’s orchestration of the Brahms Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25 and concluded with the Brahms Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68. On Tuesday night the concert opened with Wagner’s Prelude to Act 1 of “Die Meistersinger” followed by Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 in E major, Op. 9, and ended with Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73.
The orchestra is currently on a tour of the United States performing the Brahms symphonies along with other works. It was fitting that in their LA performance they performed works by one-time LA resident Arnold Schoenberg, in particular his orchestration of the Brahms Piano Quartet, which premiered in LA in 1937 under LA Phil Music Director Otto Klemperer.
When the strings of the Berlin Philharmonic took over after the woodwinds played the four-bar introduction (played by the piano in the original) of Schoenberg’s orchestration, one immediately heard why the Berlin Philharmonic is one of the two or three best orchestras in the world. The strings of the Berlin have a richer, stronger sound than the string sections of most other great orchestras. Though I am reluctant to offer an explanation, it may have to do with the orchestra’s composition. The Berlin Philharmonic is still a male-dominated orchestra, especially in the woodwind and brass sections, even though it does boast several female members (more than its Austrian counterpart, the Vienna Philharmonic, which only recently admitted female members and still has very few). This may account for the generally stronger, more powerful sound in all the sections. One obvious example was the principle oboist, who produced a sound that was at once beautiful but forceful.
A particular standout of ensemble playing in the orchestra was the double bass section. They played with a precision and power that one rarely hears from double basses. And Rattle was appreciative because the double basses were the first players he visited as he walked among the orchestra members thanking them at the conclusion of both night’s concerts.
Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic with the respect that they deserve. He rarely beat time for them and often simply let them play while he used subtle gestures of his hands and face to indicate dynamic nuances.
Most notable about the two concerts, other than the absolutely superb playing by the orchestra, however, were Rattle’s idiosyncratic interpretations, especially of the two Brahms symphonies. He definitely did not play these symphonies close to the vest. In particular, he took some liberties, both with tempos and dynamics. For example, probably in order to accentuate the forte sections, Rattle exaggerated the quieter sections that preceded them. At times during the main melody of the finale of the Brahms’ second symphony and its recapitulation, Rattle had the orchestra playing so quietly, it was hard to imagine that many strong players playing so softly. But the strategy was effective when the contrasting forte sections began.
Some traditionalists might quarrel with Rattle’s interpretations, but no one in the audience did. Rattle gave more life to the Brahms symphonies than most interpretations and made them sound both fresh and exciting at the same time. But whether or not you liked his interpretative meddling, it was impossible not to be swept up by the exhilarating performances of these masterpieces by this great orchestra. And the audience was.
Despite numerous calls for an encore on Monday night, the orchestra was finally led off stage by Rattle (I was told that Rattle and the Berlin Phil do not perform encores). On Tuesday night, after several curtain calls, including one in which the players refused to stand and then applauded their music director, Rattle left the stage, and most audience members, many of whom were there for a second night, showed their appreciation for this great orchestra by continuing to stand and applaud while the orchestra members exited the stage – a phenomenon one rarely, if ever, witnesses.