Many great orchestras pass through New York every year, but the Berlin Philharmonic always seems to create a special buzz. Sure enough, there were few empty seats at the orchestra’s recent four concerts at Carnegie Hall, press tickets were strictly rationed, and the audience reception was ecstatic. Most major conductors, whether they care to admit it or not, dream about being elected artistic director of this deluxe band, whose eventful history dates back to 1882. Whenever the post falls vacant, and that’s happened on only three occasions over the past 52 years, the backstage politicking for one of the most prestigious jobs in music can get as ruthless as a United States presidential campaign.
The maestro of the moment is Sir Simon Rattle, 51, who took over from Claudio Abbado in 2002. Rattle’s highly personal music-making has already stirred up controversy, and the heated arguments surrounding him indicate what a healthy central role the orchestra continues to play in Berlin’s cultural life. The reign of Herbert von Karajan, from 1954 to 1989, still casts a long shadow, and the super virtuoso instrument that he created is not quickly forgotten (hundreds of recordings and videos certainly help). Every Karajan interpretation was pretty much the last word in aural refinement, and any conductor who stands before the orchestra today must compete with his potent memory. That fact hardly seems to faze Rattle, who made his very different musical priorities clear in his first concert at Carnegie: Haydn’s Symphony No. 86, Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra, and Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben—a vintage Berlin Philharmonic program of Central European classics that consciously seemed to challenge the ghost of Karajan.
Where Karajan liked to insinuate and seduce, Rattle prefers a more direct approach. It’s not exactly rude or in-your-face—as one of the most coddled musicians of his generation and carefully groomed by the British musical Establishment for great things, Sir Simon is much too well mannered for that. Even so, his Haydn still tends to be rather hectic, whereas the hero of Strauss’s extravagant tone poem is almost too self-regarding and digressive as he battles his critics and recounts his bully deeds. Rattle scored his most impressive points with the Schoenberg Variations, which was given its premiere by the Berlin Phil under Wilhelm Furtwängler in 1928. The orchestra, a huge one for this piece, not only articulated the notes with stunning tonal precision and expressive commitment, but the performance as a whole clarified as few do the complex melodic and rhythmic patterns of a score that, for all its instrumental beauties, can sound dangerously overloaded.
Rattle has already renewed the Berliners’ commitment to new music, and his Carnegie programs included two tough big recent pieces: Noesis by Hanspeter Kyburz and Asyla by Thomas Adès. The British proclaimed Adès a genius at a young age just as they did Rattle, and now that he’s 34, the rest of the world seems to agree. Asyla (plural of “asylum”) was written for Rattle in 1997 as part of his final season with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and it never allows an audience’s attention to wander. The four movements create a restless aura of threatening malaise, conveying Adès’s idea of an asylum that’s not a refuge but a madhouse. This is music crammed with potent aural images that invite listeners to invent their own scenarios, and an obviously rapt audience seemed absorbed and hard at work. It made an apt addition to Emanuel Ax’s cultured interpretation of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 and Ravel’s enchanting Mother Goose ballet, enough musical stimulation to tide us over until the Berliners next come to town.