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Music review: Simon Rattle and Berlin Philharmonic winning again at Disney Hall

November 25, 2009 |  2:40 pm


The Berlin Brahms Bombers victory tour came to a premature finish Tuesday night. The leader of the Berlin Philharmonic, Simon Rattle, received a hero’s excited welcome. The Second Symphony proved smashing, as had the first night from this inimitable orchestra’s two-evening visit to Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Pity, then, that the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which sponsored the concerts and which was welcoming back a prodigal son who was once its principal guest conductor, had not gone all the way and added a third concert. Not only did Berlin bring the four Brahms symphonies on its U.S. tour, but also two Schoenberg works that were not included in the L.A. concerts.

That, however, didn’t stop Rattle from the remarkable achievement of making news with Brahms' Second. He also made news with Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, on the first half of the program, and that was an even bigger accomplishment.

Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger” opened the evening, rather than Schoenberg’s eight-minute “Accompaniment to a Cinematic Scene,” despite the fact that the score happened to be in the Berliners’ suitcases and this town knows a thing or two about cinematic scenes. But the Wagner was grandly played and full of extravagant good cheer.

The Chamber Symphony, which followed, was given in the rarely heard “L.A.” version, the one for full orchestra that Schoenberg made in 1935. The composer conducted the world premiere of it with the L.A. Philharmonic, although even these days that orchestra normally plays the familiar 1906 version for 15 solo instruments.

The Chamber Symphony is, in some ways, the first real piece of 20th century music. Schoenberg had not fully broken away from older forms or quite yet from tonality, but the direction was clear. He implied a new kind of expressionist music in deliriously complex counterpoint and radiant sonorities created from the whole tone scale. No music had ever sounded quite like this or yet so effectively pointed to all the changes in sciences, psychology, the arts and government that were roiling the new century.

The orchestration adds lushness and takes away some of the chamber version’s edge. But Rattle's stirring, propulsive performance had it both ways. Melodies, phrased with rapturous care, stood out through the thorny ensemble textures like alluring roses in a briar patch.

Rattle regularly conducts with his mouth open, half singing and half gaping in infectious, awe-struck wonder. And that's what he got from his virtuosic players, who exhibited a real sense of mission with their Schoenberg. A city that had once made the Jewish-born composer unwelcome in ’30s has, of course, long since made amends. Rattle himself led an enthusiastic recording of Schoenberg’s “Gurrelieder” with the orchestra in 2001, the year before he became its principal conductor and artistic director.

But this ecstatic Chamber Symphony performance went further. If audiences still fear Schoenberg, Rattle and Berliners have the get-over-it pill.

They also have a get-over-it pill for audiences blasé about Brahms' Second, that lyrical lullaby of a symphony. There was nothing lulling this time as Rattle burst Brahms at the seams. He conducted in a state of perpetual amplification, bringing out absolutely everything. He could get slow and heavy, particularly in the Adagio, but the symphony always teemed with energy.

As was the case with the First Symphony, Rattle gave his players quite a bit of leeway while at the same time setting his ensemble on fire, pushing it about as hard as you can push an orchestra. Not everything was flawless. A horn briefly broke at the beginning. Winds did not avoid touches of ugliness for expressive purposes. But everyone could also come together to produce some of the sweetest tones you might ever want to behold.

Such drama would have been, in any symphony extraordinary. In Brahms' Second, it was a revelation.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Monday night in the first of the orchestra's two Walt Disney Concert Hall performances. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times.