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An orchestrated, brilliant rebirth

The skilled Simon Rattle brings the Berlin Philharmonic's tremendous virtuosity to bear on everything it performs.

November 24, 2003|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

On Dec. 8, 1942, Wilhelm Furtwangler conducted Schubert's monumental C-Major Symphony ("The Great") with the Berlin Philharmonic in the orchestra's old concert hall, which was destroyed by the Allies in 1944. Most in the audience were probably Nazis. Listen today to a recording of this almost unbearably intense and tragic interpretation of the usually triumphant work, and you can hear a message.

Cheerful rhythms in the first movement become machine-gun fire. Light does not break through darkness. We are here, the great but morally compromised conductor seems to be saying to his audience, because the incomparable humanity of Schubert must be preserved for the future. You must examine, through the genius of this composer and through the extraordinary authority of this orchestra, your own humanity. The world, Furtwangler believed, could be saved only through culture.

Almost 61 years to the day of that concert, the Berlin Philharmonic played Schubert's symphony once more. This time, the venue was the new Walt Disney Concert Hall, a joyous building that regularly puts a spring in the step of people who enter it. This time, the conductor was an exuberant Brit, Simon Rattle, who just began his second season as music director of the world's most celebrated orchestra. Furtwangler can rest easily in his grave. Schubert's spirit has been reborn.

Herbert von Karajan, who took over the Berlin Philharmonic in 1955 after Furtwangler's death, polished the orchestra into the musical equivalent of a spick-and-span linoleum kitchen as it became a state-supported poster child for the good life in West Berlin. From 1989 to 2002, the orchestra under Claudio Abbado reflected the city's convulsions after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Conventions were questioned, new blood was infused into clotted veins, but artistic direction was vague.

Now, Rattle is determined to oversee a radical makeover of the orchestra, as was evident in the concerts at Disney Hall on Friday night and Saturday afternoon. Rattle's enthusiasms range wide.

For 18th and early 19th century music, he advocated period instrument practices. In the big Romantic era and early 20th century works, he relished a full-bodied and hot-tempered emotionalism.

Still, Rattle lives in his own time, with close connections to living composers of many different stripes. And his mission in Berlin is to bring the Philharmonic's tremendous virtuosity to bear on all these types of music.

At the extreme of early music, it could not have been easy to get the proud Berlin players to mimic the thinner sounds of older instruments in Schubert or in Haydn's Symphony No. 88. But they did so to a surprising degree while still relishing their modern virtuosity. The Haydn symphony is suffused with wit, and Rattle magically pulled some new color or harmony or unexpected melodic gem from his hat with every passing phrase. The freshness of the orchestra's playing in the immediate Disney acoustic -- which disguises nothing yet still flatters beauty -- made a 216-year-old symphony sound as though it were written yesterday.

At the other extreme, the newest work, "Correspondances" by the 86-year-old French composer Henri Dutilleux, was written for the orchestra this year and was given its premiere in September.

Intended for soprano Dawn Upshaw, it includes poems by Prithwindra Mukherjee and Rainer Maria Rilke and letters by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Vincent Van Gogh -- four searching texts summoning a life force beyond ordinary sensation. Rilke turned to immeasurable ethereal sound; Van Gogh believed in the cosmic capacity of color.

Because she was recovering from a vocal inflammation suffered shortly after premiering "Correspondances," Upshaw was replaced by Canadian soprano Valdine Anderson, who commanded the subtle character of Dutilleux's vocal lines, although she did not always manage to be heard distinctly above the colorful orchestra. Dutilleux has always had a remarkable ear for instrumental color, and in his late period he is bringing a courtly mystical radiance to his orchestral writing. "Correspondances" practically glowed in the Berliners' hands.

Rattle offered three early 20th century scores to prove that the Philharmonic could make as spectacular a sound as ever. Sibelius' Seventh Symphony, gloriously full-blown, was the piece in which to fall in love with the brass. Debussy's "La Mer" turned the affections toward the flutes in particular and the woodwinds in general. Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta was an acoustic test for Disney: stellar string playing on the edge of audibility, a celesta sparkling like sonic glitter throughout the hall.

In Bartok and Debussy, Rattle's infectious conducting style, however appealing on the visceral level, could also seem slightly fussy. Famed French conductor Pierre Boulez was sitting in the audience for "La Mer," and it was hard not to miss his more luminous approach.

But the Schubert symphony was in a class of its own. It felt as though Rattle had channeled his immediate predecessors -- the fervor of Furtwangler, the brilliant luster of Von Karajan and the intellectual stimulation of Abbado -- into something altogether new and optimistic. The playing was lean and forward leaning, full of power and energy. Believe again in Schubert's triumphant symphony, the performance told us.

Rattle and Berlin have more to say. Three programs were offered for the American tour, but the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which presented these concerts, opted out of adventure. Missing were Ligeti's Violin Concerto and a new work by experimental composer Heiner Goebbels, who had a great success at UCLA last season. The New York Times recently hailed Disney Hall as a symbol for adventurous orchestral thinking, but it was Carnegie Hall, not Disney, that wanted everything. Even San Francisco, the orchestra's last stop today and Tuesday, gets both brand-new works.

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