Remembering the Berlin Philharmonic

by Jennifer Bryce

I had heard the Berlin Philharmonic in recordings – often. The first I remember is a recording of Beethoven’s Ninth conducted by von Karajan, given to me in the ‘70s by a friend who was horrified to hear the student-bought recording I had of that symphony. But when I was in Berlin in 2008 I was disappointed that the orchestra was in summer recess. In November 2010, the orchestra visited Australia; only Perth and Sydney. I decided to travel from my home town Melbourne to Sydney –  the concert was at the Opera House.  The ‘cheap’ tickets were either at the very back of the hall or in the choir stalls. A ticket in the choir stalls was my choice because I was interested to see how the conductor, Sir Simon Rattle, worked with the orchestra.

There I was in the front row of the choir stalls of the Sydney Opera House. The program started with Haydn Symphony number 99, not one that I am intimately acquainted with, composed in Vienna between Haydn’s two visits to London. No matter, it was Haydn played by the Berlin Philharmonic. Within seconds I was enthralled by the magical woodwind sound – particularly the oboe – ‘woody’ yet pure, the closest I can get to describing it is that it is like a heavily wooded chardonnay; dark, liquid and golden. Simon Rattle is about as far away as you can get from a ‘time-keeper’ conductor. The beat is there in the minds of the players and he seems to draw the music out of them and mime it; sometimes mouthing things, sometimes completely still, often not using the baton. It’s a bit like being an actor, but he’s not acting the music. He is the music.

After the Haydn we heard the Berg Three Pieces for Orchestra (Prelude, Round Dance and March). Here I concentrated more on the music than its execution, and likewise with the next piece Australian composer Brett Dean’s Komarov’s Fall, which is a part of a succession from Holst’s Planets – a suite called Asteroids, commissioned in 2005. Four composers selected particular asteroids for their music. Brett Dean selected ‘1836 Komorov’, named after astronaut Komorov who died as a result of the failed Soyuz I mission. The music itself depicts frailty – the frailty of the spacecraft in space depicted by percussion such as shaken aluminium foil (being right behind the percussion I focused on these things). The final impact of Komarov’s vessel with earth is horrifically sharp and loud. Then we are left with very shrill eerie rippling sounds.

The final item was Brahms’s Second Symphony. It surged through my mind for many days after the concert. In one sense, the way the Berlin Philharmonic plays is like chamber music – each section is like one instrument intimately connected to the others. Simon Rattle is there, drawing the music out. He doesn’t need to bring in instruments in the conventional way of reminding players of their cues – sometimes there is an important entry and he just lets it happen. Sometimes it is as though he is in the centre of a huge wave of surf, full of energy, but still.  And then his decisive movement causes the wave to break.

After thunderous applause and a Tchaikovsky encore the players shook each other’s hands as they left the stage – another sign of this intimate relationship of the parts and the whole. I sensed that the teamwork is certainly not one of obedience – like a corps de ballet; it seems like 127 people having a shared understanding, which makes phenomenal music.