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Music review: Simon Rattle and Berlin Philharmonic triumphant at Disney Hall

November 24, 2009 |  2:30 pm

It is not easy to create a sensation with the Brahms symphonies. These four sturdy scores are the standard repertory’s comfort food, often served overcooked and under-spiced, meant more to nourish than excite.

Monday night the Berlin Philharmonic played Brahms’ First in Walt Disney Concert Hall. Simon Rattle conducted. As always, the symphony ended in its conventionally feel-good rush to glory on a C-major chord. But this time the crowd began to cheer just as the sound was evaporating, turning Brahms’ chord into a swelling tone cluster as cheers expanded into an exhilarating roar. The performance had been so alive that it seemed the audience needed to extend the symphony long enough to physically absorb Brahms and take him home with them.

The ups and downs of Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic have been avidly followed by the music world. In 2002, the popular British conductor became the orchestra’s chief conductor and artistic director, the most prestigious post in conducting, after having spent 18 years with the provincial City of Birmingham Symphony, which he turned into perhaps England’s most noticed orchestra. Angelenos watched Rattle grow from whiz-kid to master during his 14-year stint as principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which ended in 1994.

But no conductor is prepared for the Berlin fishbowl. Time has been needed for Rattle to adjust to the limelight and for a storied institution with a glorious, if not always sterling, past to adjust. The Berlin Philharmonic that last appeared at Disney with Rattle six years ago is not the same one here Monday and Tuesday nights.

Rattle The orchestra is now modern. Its players represent a multicultural metropolis. Many now are Rattle hires and young. At 54, Rattle, himself, is young/old. His curly hair is white, but he exudes exactly the same enthusiasm as he did 30 years ago.

What he has brought to Berlin is freedom, and perhaps there is no better way than in Brahms to show just how extraordinary that freedom is in an orchestra that once served Hitler and once did Herbert von Karajan’s bidding.

Rattle is touring the U.S. with programs based on the Brahms symphonies that are designed to show the composer as progressive as Schoenberg claimed he was. And Rattle is doing that by also including Schoenberg in each program. But he is really doing it by playing Brahms the way Schoenberg may well have wanted us to hear him.

On Monday, Rattle began with Schoenberg’s orchestration of Brahms’ early G-minor Piano Quartet. Brahms was a conservative orchestrator. Schoenberg was not. When he made the version in 1937, he had recently moved from Berlin to Los Angeles and was clearly entranced by the resplendent light of his new home. He garbs the quartet in garish instrumental colors that have taken many Brahmsians aback.

Rattle emphasized everything in the most polystylistic way possible. A horn solo in the solo movement had a raw jazzy quality; a clarinet solo in the Gypsy-inspired last movement was klezmer-like. A xylophone clattered, a bass drum thumped. But within this ruckus was also ravishing ensemble playing and, from Rattle, the inspiration not only for great characterization but also for momentum.
That, though, was but prelude to the opening of the First Symphony on the second half of the program. It began with a massive weight, as if the orchestra were a volcano ready to erupt. I had never thought of Brahms and "The Rite of Spring” in the same breath, or John Adams’ “Harmonielehre,” but this was the kind of thrill Rattle was after.

Rattle’s Brahms is all that Brahms can be. His is Brahms for we who have lived through the 20th century and are trying to figure out in a fast-changing world what to take with us from the past and what to discard. His Brahms is still stolid. The Berliners have lost nothing of their pre-Rattle somberness, ferocity or luminosity. I’ve long thought this the greatest orchestra of them all and Monday did nothing to change my mind.

But this was also Brahms untamed. The lilting Andante movement didn’t just lilt, it felt as though it might lope right out of the hall. The last movement, so monumental, just about began to crack apart, with new life growing out of each fissure. Yet when Rattle whipped up excitement, he channeled the famed old Berlin Philharmonic ensemble, which can do anything.

Of course, we wanted to take this home with us. It was a sensation.

-- Mark Swed

Berlin Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 8 p.m Tuesday. Info.

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Photos: Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall Monday night. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times