Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Sonic Champagne from Berliner Philharmoniker on New Year's Eve

Pop! The cork flew from the bottle with the opening phrase of the Dvořák Symphonic Dance in G minor, Op. 46 no. 8. This concert of The Berliner Philharmoniker, conducted by Simon Rattle and transmitted live in the Digital Concert Hall, seemed like a gift. It was not announced when the season was originally posted, but appeared a few weeks ago on their listing of scheduled live events.

The concert was titled Das Silvesterkonzert, and it had a formal but yet relaxed feel. The audience was even highlighted in soft bluish light. Annette Gerlach moderated the concert, saying a few words before each segment of music.

The event gave us a chance to hear pianist Lang Lang perform the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3 with Rattle and the BP. This work is one of the two concerti on the disc recently released by the orchestra with Lang as soloist. Surrounded as it was by energized dance music, Lang had the perfect opportunity to bring out the playful edges of the Prokofiev third.

His technical machinery is remarkable. But what pleased most in this performance was his extremely quiet and tender sound in places like the nocturnal fourth variation of the second movement. The dotted rhythm octave-calls followed by whisper quiet figuration was haunting. Lang made the piano seem orchestral in its own right, but he also listened carefully to the orchestra, matching articulations and shadings throughout.

There is a passage in the lyrical central tableau of the third movement where many live performances lose fizzle. It begins with the passage for solo piano in D minor. But Lang played with the precision of a clock escapement, and kept the energy of the work leaning forward.

The live filming of this concert was also quite musical. Several angles showed close-up shots of Lang's fingerings, and the crisp energy of his articulations. There was a very clean shot of castinet playing in the first movement, and a very good balance between soloist and orchestra, which was useful in this concerto where the orchestra had such an important role in the narrative.

There was no intermission, but it nevertheless took several minutes for the mechanical lifts to swallow the piano into the stomach of the hall and to restore the stage for the remainder of the event.

A set of three more Dvořák Slavonic dances followed, this time from Op. 72. The orchestra performed No. 1, the Odzemek in B major, the slow and elegant No. 2 in E minor, and closed with No. 7 in C major. One always listens for the gear changes in this style. It is informative to hear how good orchestras anticipate and shape them. We got to see Rattle enjoy the two six-bar phrases in the middle of the C major trio in No. 2. His smile was all that was needed to communicate the lovely strangeness of these two phrases awash in a sea of longing set in four-bar phrases.

I'm not sure that the third movement of the Hindemith Symphonic Dances fit into this program, but it is rarely heard and was enjoyable for that reason alone.

A Khachaturian set followed with four movements from the Gayane suite, including the Sabre Dance, Dance of the Young Kurds, the adagio Gayane used by Kubrick, and closing with the wonderfully rustic Lezginka.

As an encore, Rattle played two works by Brahms, the Hungarian Dance No. 3 in F, and closed with the Hungarian Dance No. 1 in G minor.

Goodbye 2013, you have been (mostly) good to us. 

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