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Posted on Wed, Nov 18, 2009 : 1:30 a.m.

Berlin Philharmonic transcendent in concert at Hill Auditorium

By Susan Isaacs Nisbett


Acclaimed orchestra Berliner Philharmoniker, under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle, performing at Hill Auditorium on Tuesday night, November 17.

Lon Horwedel |

The audience at Hill Auditorium on Tuesday evening was ready to worship. The capacity crowd gave the members of the Berliner Philharmoniker and its director, Sir Simon Rattle, a large ovation simply for walking on stage at this University Musical Society concert. But that ovation was a trifle compared to the one the orchestra received at the end of the concert, for making music so riveting that it kept the hush in a hall filled with listeners fond of coughing even when it isn’t flu season.

It’s easy to be transported by Brahms, the main subject of this concert and the Berlin orchestra’s current U.S. tour. (It’s less easy to be transported by Schoenberg, but hold on for more about how that happened, too.) And it would be easy to say that the orchestra, which just released a recording of all four Brahms symphonies, and played Nos. 3 and 4 here on Tuesday, was playing to its strength in this repertoire. It was, of course. But it would be more accurate to say it was playing to Brahms’ strength, gleaming darkly, dancing lightly, as it probed the music to reveal currents large and small — details that only enhanced the big picture.

There was no wait to be swept up, for Sir Simon drew such dynamically expansive playing from the orchestra in the opening bars of the Brahms third symphony that the music was simply propelled forward, and the listener with it. (The sense of the music pouncing in the finale of the fourth symphony was equally compelling.) The miracle was that, for all the rich shaping of phrases with swells and retreats, the musical line never was shortened. On the contrary, each wave fed into the next, building toward something bigger.

Berliner Philharmoniker perform Brahms' Symphony No. 3 (excerpt)

Something similar happened in the opening of the fourth symphony, where the opening allegro derived a spaciousness from the subjugation of smaller ideas to larger. You could hear every detail, but what Sir Simon heard as foreground was highlighted so that a listener latched onto nouns and verbs, with adjectives and adverbs registering second. The diction was impeccable. Berliner Philharmoniker perform Brahms' Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98 (excerpt)

Such clarity, in fact, was a hallmark of the playing, but never at the expense of warmth — or depth. In forte passages, the impression was of strength rather than volume, and one could sink into the plush velvet of the orchestra’s lower strings. In soft passages, particularly of the winds — stellar throughout the evening — the colors simply glowed. And throughout, Sir Simon let you really hear Brahms’ harmonies in the most telling fashion. The andante movements of both symphonies were particularly moving. In the third, one heard a simple song of benediction; the andante of the fourth sang, too, with horns leading in serene winds and strings.

Between the third and fourth symphonies of Brahms came Schoenberg’s “Music to Accompany a Film Scene.” The listener could furnish the visuals, especially since Schoenberg made the score for an imaginary film. Mine came from Hitchcock, and the only scary things and dark alleys in this very likeable Schoenberg piece came from the sound effects — menacing tremolos and disturbing, but somehow lyrical, melodic fragments in the strings; mysterious shimmerings from the percussion section — and from the eerie calm that told you something pretty awful had happened. It was very atmospheric and lots of fun. And as with the Brahms on the bill, much of that had to do with the Berlin playing to Schoenberg’s strengths as well as to its own.

Susan Isaacs Nisbett is a free-lance writer who covers classical music and dance for


gerlinda melchiori

Thu, Nov 19, 2009 : 10:31 a.m.

Well written, well done. but it should also have been in the printed version. Who cares how big the hamburgers are in a new joint on Plymouth, but this community should read about THE cultural event of the year in the city. Thanks. GM


Thu, Nov 19, 2009 : 1:21 a.m.

Maybe James was a bit harsh from the position of someone with greater musical education and at the same time someone with much bigger expectations (I have a feeling that some of comentators saw it as a bit too elitistic view). I do not see myself as someone with great musical education (playing piano as kid and singing in quire), but I love clasical music and will come again to worship Berliner Philharmoniker when ever they come to Ann Arbor. Having said that, I can not stop comparing last night concert and the one 8 years ago in the same auditorium, same orchestra, but with maestro Abbado and Beethoven 5th and 6th Symphony. That was a miracle, a concert of a lifetime, experience shared with several people I spoke to, where orchestra, audience and the whole venue thought and breathed as one, a bondage of unforgettable joy in music with long lasting standing ovations at the end that were coming from the hearts of people in the audience. Orchestra did not play any encore as to say, that was it, there is nothing more that can be given this night. Compared to that experience I have to agree with James Leonard coment about inability to sustain musical tension, in other words that was the night of brilliant orchestral skills and no concert magic (with glimps of how it could be during 2nd part of 4th Symphony).

Old West Sider

Wed, Nov 18, 2009 : 1:10 p.m.

I don't believe that Mr. leonard and I attended the same concert Tuesday Evening. The Berlin Philharmoniker Orchestra was fantastic. I do hope that someone was able to take his seat after he left at intermission. I had the pleasure of hearing the Berlin Orchestra in their first concert in Ann Arbor in 1955 and today they are just as great as then. Thank you UMS We look forward to our next concert at Hill.

Mark Clague

Wed, Nov 18, 2009 : 12:28 p.m.

I, for one, loved last night's concert from start to finish and found Rattle's interpretation both engaged and engaging. The fortissimo passages (especially in the climactic parts of the Fourth Symphony) were almost over the top to my ears -- powerful and exciting -- of almost Mahlerian proportions. No way one could consider that a disengaged mezzo if one had experienced it. I was impressed with the interpretation of the Third -- not a piece that gets performed that often, in part because the ending doesn't offer a feel-good rousing finish. I, for one, was pleased that Rattle didn't try to make something out of it that wasn't there and, if anything, was pleased with the BP's gutsy programming to offer the Third on the first half of a concert and thus make its ending work emotionally within the trajectory of a concert. It was brilliant. That Rattle so carefully managed the time between movements, almost treating certain movements as connected (nos. 2-4 in the Third, and 3-4 in the Fourth) struck me as both original and inspired. In the Fourth Symphony, this was particularly effective as Rattle kept his arms up after the scherzo had ended and jumped immediately into the Bach-inspired theme of the variation set to close out the concert. The audience didn't have a moment to take a breath. The Philharmoniker's playing was fantastic, but it's what Rattle and the musicians did with that skill, power, and expressive depth that made the concert, for me at least, of the best I've heard in a long while.

Michael Mauskapf

Wed, Nov 18, 2009 : 10:44 a.m.

Mr. Leonard-- It's a shame you left at intermission. The Brahms Four that followed was probably the best I've heard live or on record--really great stuff, well-balanced musically with a sense of direction and excitement across and within all four movements. I've heard Rattle conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra number of times, and I think that, while he may not be your cup of tea, his ability and desire to lead and/or facilitate an on-the-edge-of-your seat performance is second to very few. Bravo to Rattle and the Orchestra, and thanks to UMS for bringing an international gem to Ann Arbor. I for one appreciate it.


Wed, Nov 18, 2009 : 9:28 a.m.

I would agree that perhaps Sir Simon could have better engaged the players throughout the symphonies, but I thought that he conducted the dynamics well. Like the rest of the audience, I really enjoyed the 4th, especially the last two movements where the orchestra just seemed to show their real strength. I was a bit disappointed that they didn't provide us with an encore - the audience certainly showed their appreciation for the 4th, and I noticed (being close to the front) that they did have extra Brahms & Wagner music on their stands. Perhaps they had given their all with the last movement, and the length of the concert was weighing on them.

James Leonard

Wed, Nov 18, 2009 : 7:14 a.m.

Yes, as noted by your critic in her first line, the audience did come ready to worship but they worshiped an idol of gold with feet of clay. Sure, the Berliner Philharmoniker played brilliantly. They are, as your critic noted in her preview, one of the worlds greatest orchestras, and they could have played Brahms in their sleep. And since their conductor asked next to nothing of them last night, they very nearly did. Because, as must be obvious to anyone with ears to hear, Simon Rattle is an extremely uninvolved Brahms conductor or perhaps just an extremely uninvolved conductor. His dynamics last night ranged from mezzo-piano to mezzo-forte with minimal crescendos and diminuendos, and no true pianissimos. On top of that, Rattles phasing was nearly nonexistent, his balances were rudimentary, and his tempos were haphazard: the motto theme that opens the Third Symphony returned only at approximations of its original tempo while the coda of the Thirds finale did not so much wind down as unravel. But worse by far was Rattles plain inability to sustain musical tension. The Thirds opening movements development turned flaccid half way through and the following re-transition had no drive whatsoever; the choral at the center of the slow movement sagged intolerably, and the entire finale was dreadfully limp, particularly the flabby coda. The result was a brilliantly executed but aesthetically empty performance. Unlike your critic, I left at intermission because Id heard enough. But as I left the building I did hear one more thing: the rapturous applause of an audience that came ready to worship. Id rather not think about what they were worshipping.