Wednesday 6 December 2017

Despatch from Berlin: Berlin Philharmonic in Stravinsky & Rachmaninov, the Staatskapelle Berlin in Bartok, Dukas & Stravinsky

By VollwertBIT (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Staatsoper, Unter den Linden, Berlin
Photo: VollwertBIT (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Bartok, Dukas; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Simon Rattle, Staatskapelle Berlin , Francois-Xavier Roth; Berlin
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on Nov 30 2017 Star rating: 4.0
A symphony of late romantic influence and one that easily stirs the emotions

Our correspondent, Tony, continues his exploration of Berlin with a pair of concerts featuring contrasting works from the 1930s, Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in Rachmaninov's Third Symphony, plus music by Stravinsky, at the newly restored Staatsoper, Unter den Linden, and the Staatskapelle Berlin under François-Xavier Roth at the Konzerthaus in Bartok's Second Violin Concerto with violinist Renaud Capuçon, plus music by Dukas & Stravinsky,

Russian-born composer, Sergei Rachmaninov, wrote his Third Symphony in 1936 whilst living in Switzerland where he built a family home located just outside of Hertenstein near Lake Lucerne. Named Villa Senar, it was the composer’s summer residence for most of the 1930s. He died in 1943 after immigrating to the United States and, apparently, wanted to be buried at Senar but with the outcome of the Second World War this thwarted his wishes.

However, Rachmaninov’s three symphonies reflect three very different phases in his creative development. The First (written in 1895) conjures up a stormy combination of contemporary trends in Russian symphonic music whilst the Second (1907) reflects the opulence of the music of, say, Tchaikovsky and the Third (1936), a legacy of Senar and, I feel, a work of late romantic influence but one, too, exploring new ideas.

First heard in Britain in November 1937 with the London Philharmonic under Sir Thomas Beecham, the symphony - which easily stirs the emotions - first saw the light of day a year earlier with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Critical opinion was divided whilst public opinion proved negative but the composer stuck to his guns and remained totally convinced of its worth.

An excellent symphony in its conception, composition and orchestration, Rachmaninov rated it as one of his finest works. And it was written after a harrowing and difficult decade for him following exile from his Russian homeland and all that entails. Therefore, its lukewarm reception was a huge disappointment to him.

I don’t think he would have been disappointed, though, with this performance by Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. They were magnificent and gave a performance to chalk up. It was simply delightful and the players duly received a rousing reception from a packed house at curtain-call.

The dance-inspired rhythms of the last movement, for instance, were superbly played to say the least whilst the ‘scherzo’ in the central movement featuring the ‘quiet’ instruments of the orchestra: celesta, harp and woodwind - a lovely and rhythmic passage of the entire work - was masterfully executed. In so many ways, though, the Third’s melodic outline (especially in the first movement) and its rhythmic patterns epitomises the composer’s expressive and richly-textured Russian style.

Opening the Berlin Phil’s concert, however, was Stravinsky’s Petrushka, first performed as a ballet by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes at the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, in June 1911. The scenario surrounds the loves and jealousies of three puppets and, without doubt, possesses a lavish and strong score. The Berlin Phil tapped into its strength bringing to the full the excitement of the piece especially in the scene depicting the Shrovetide Fair in St Petersburg which sees the puppets brought to life by the charlatan showman.

As an encore, Simon Rattle reflected the Berlin Phil playing in an opera-house and appropriately chose a piece from the opera repertoire. In this case he wisely picked the ‘Intermezzo’ from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. A rich and luscious piece, it drew from the strings some rich and tender playing that is, I guess, their raison-d'être. The audience lapped it up.

Incidentally, the Berlin Phil becomes the second guest orchestra to perform in the renovated Staatsoper in Unter den Linden. A couple of concerts were staged earlier featuring the ‘house band’ Staatskapelle Berlin under Daniel Barenboim with the second (Konzert für Berlin) also featuring the Vienna Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta.

Overall, it has been a long hard slog restoring the Staatsoper to its 18th-century opulence and glory. Just over seven years, in fact. During that time the company has been quartered in the Schiller Theatre in Bismarckstraße, a stone’s-throw away from Deutsche Oper. Now, thankfully, it’s back - lock, stock and barrel - to its old stamping-ground.

Konzerthaus, Berlin
Konzerthaus, Berlin
As part of my short stay in the German capital, I also took in a wonderful performance by Staatskapelle Berlin under François-Xavier Roth in the Konzerthaus (conveniently situated just round the corner from Staatsoper) featuring French violinist, Renaud Capuçon, dazzling the audience in a marvellous rendering of Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto. Written in 1937-38, it’s a masterpiece of the repertoire and received its première at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw in March 1939 with Zoltán Székely as soloist.

Although not engaging in a twelve-tone technique, the piece contains twelve-tone themes particularly heard in the first and third movements. But it was the second movement (Andante tranquillo) that I found most appealing with Renaud Capuçon relaxed, totally at ease, producing bar after bar of effortless playing.

In fact, the Konzerthaus - flanked by the imposing neo-classically-designed French and German cathedrals with Germany’s most famous playwright, poet and philosopher, Friedrich Schiller, proudly standing in the market centre -provided the temporary home for the Staatskapelle during the restoration of Staatsoper.

However, opening Staatskapelle’s programme was a lively interpretation of Paul Dukas’ symphonic poem, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Der Zauberlehrling), inspired by Goethe’s well-loved poem of 1797.

The work, of course, gained popular (and universal) appeal when used in Walt Disney’s 1940s animated film, Fantasia, with Mickey Mouse playing the apprentice while the sorcerer, Yen Sid, was Disney spelt backwards. American creativity at its very best! However, it brought Goethe's well-loved story to a worldwide audience.

If Stravinsky opened the Berlin Phil’s concert, François-Xavier Roth closed also with Stravinsky with the Staatskapelle delivering an exciting rendering of The Firebird written for the 1910 Paris season of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes at the Opéra de Paris.

Stravinsky took the best bits from the score he wrote for the ballet - which tells of a Russian mythological story about a prince and a princess menaced by strange magical creatures - for the orchestral suite which premièred in 1919.

The work’s a tour-de-force for the brass and percussion section in the final bars. Here the players of the Staatskapelle proved more than their worth with some excellent playing with Stravinsky’s score highlighting the arrival of The Firebird in all her glory imploring everyone to dance until they fall down in a calm and deep sleep summing up a rather lovely fairy-tale ending.

The work became Stravinsky’s first big international success and it positively stamped the mark of success on this concert which saw Staatskapelle’s last appearance here. They received a rousing send-off. But, of course, they don’t have far to go. Just round the corner!
Review by Tony Cooper

Check out the Staatsoper programme by visiting

Read more of Tony's reviews from Berlin, Meyerbeer's Le prophète at the Deutsch Oper Berlin, and Mahler's Symphony No. 3 with the Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin at the Philharmonie.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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