Berlin Philharmonic transcendent in concert at Hill Auditorium
Lon Horwedel | AnnArbor.com
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 AnnArbor.com.