Review: Beethoven Symphonies 4 and 7, Berliner Philharmoniker

Friday, November 20 2015
Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle, conductor

Beethoven, Symphony No. 4 (1806)
Beethoven, Symphony No. 7 (1812)

Earlier this year, when Alan Gilbert announced that he would leave his position as music director of the New York Philharmonic in 2017, a flurry of critics posited candidates for his successor.  Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times, who clearly prefers someone with a penchant for new music, had asked, “Are we really going to pick the music director of America’s oldest orchestra in its cultural capital based on how splendidly he or she conducts the Beethoven symphonies?”

Well, in the backwaters of Philadelphia and Boston and London and Berlin, how splendidly one conducts the Beethoven symphonies is still at least part of a conductor’s valuation.  If the nearly sold out Beethoven symphony cycle by the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle at Carnegie Hall this week were any indication, I’d say that the New York audience–critics be damned–thinks so too.

Unless I somehow score a ticket to tomorrow evening’s Beethoven’s Ninth, this performance of Beethoven’s Fourth and Seventh symphonies is likely my NYC music event of the season.  I wanted to hear vintage Beethoven–like how one sees stock photos of famous places and want to be transported there in person–and I wasn’t disappointed.  The Fourth was especially textbook perfect.  Possibly the composer’s most underrated symphony, being sandwiched as it is between the much more highly lauded Third and Fifth, it is also the most airy and exuberant.  Composed during a brief happy period of a life otherwise full of strife, the Fourth nevertheless is punctuated by moments of emotional outbursts.  After a mysterious minor-chord opening, the music rather suddenly builds up to two energetic F major chords, and off we go, the orchestra is not messing around.  Its playing throughout was classic without being trite, professional without being distant, nothing more, nothing less, and really I have nothing else to add.

The Seventh is my favorite Beethoven symphony.  I prefer it over the ultra dramatic Fifth and Ninth, the unrelatable (to me anyway) Third, and all of the understated (though still nice) even-numbered symphonies.  J.W.N. Sullivan once wrote that the Seventh is “the first work on a grand scale in which the conflict is taken for granted”.  Hmm, kind of like my life, which must be why I like it so much.  And here I thought it’s that intoxicating A-minor allegretto instead.  Speaking of which, the second movement of the Seventh–which I am going on record with stating that I want to be played at my funeral–was the only movement in the entire concert in which I heard minor deviations from, say, a Deutsche Grammophon recording with Karajan.  After the portent opening chord and a calm introduction of the theme, Sir Rattle brought the violas and the cellos to barely-audible whispers in measures 13-20.  The second movement of the Seventh is often described as a spellbinding dance between Life and Death with Death ultimately winning over Life, and these measures signal the shadowy first appearance of Death.  From there the music increases in loudness and stakes, as we witness a sensual interplay between what Freud would later call Eros and Thanatos.  Sir Rattle played the eighth notes more legato than I’m used to, further enhancing the evocative qualities of the dance.  Somewhat unfortunately, however, as there was almost no pause between the first and second movements, the Carnegie Hall audience couldn’t hold its coughs, breaking the hypnotic spell.

The rest of the symphony went on classically as the last bastion of the Classical era.  As Sullivan wrote, “The exultant note rises higher until, in the last movement, we are in the region of pure ecstasy”.  This was exactly the in-person experience recreated by Sir Rattle and this great orchestra.  In the concert notes, whoever wrote the introduction for the Berlin Philharmonic had felt compelled to note that “Claudio Abbado, chief conductor from 1989 to 2002, devised a new type of programming, with increased emphasis on contemporary works”.  Whatever is wrong with just being the absolute state of the art in Beethoven?