Saturday, 1 September 2012

Mustard and Beefsteak - Rattle Lutosławski Brahms Prom 64

Berlin comes to London! The Berliner Philharmoniker 2012-13 season began on 24th August with a gala concert featuring Witold Lutosławski.and Johannes Brahms. (Read more HERE). The exact same programme at the BBC Proms, London on 31st August. Compare the two performances - the Berlin one on the Berliner Philharmoniker site and the London one on BBC Radio 3. The difference is striking!

In Berlin, the Berliners play in the Philharmonie, noted for its good acoustic, to a reverent audience for whom music and the Berliner music year are serious things indeed. In London, they're playing at the Royal Albert Hall with its dodgy acoustic but unmistakable party atmosphere. So in Berlin, exqusite, dedicated performances. And in London, cheerful good fun. Both approaches perfectly compatible, neither necessarily "better" than the other. You need to hear both performances. Orchestras tour these days and festivals feature the same items, but no two performances are ever really alike.

First a nice safe standard : Brahms Piano Concerto no 2 in B flat major, with Yefim Bronfman. No surprises, with a soloist this good and an orchestra who have the piece in their genes.  But was the Royal Albert Hall playing tricks? I kept hearing stamping noises behind, then realized that it wasn't someone in the audience but Bronfman himself, merrily stamping his feet as he played. The quirks of the RAH acoustic bounced the sound off the platform into the stalls. Since Bronfman's a musician in every way the extra percussion he contributed worked quite well in its own strange way. Perfection we can hear anytime, but sound effects like this are rare. Evidently, Bronfman was happy and conveyed his joie de vivre to the orchestra and to the audience (most of whom wouldn't have heard the secret extras) (it's almost certainly not audible on the BBC broadcast).

Fairly routine playing otherwise, but the Berliners are so good that even when they let their hair down (so to speak) they are still more interesting than anyone else. Besides, the compensation is seeing them all looking relaxed and laid back. This concerto is a big beast, the sort of thing that appeals to those who like their music as red meat, with gravy and a strong cigar. On the other hand, its finest moments are quieter and more piquant.

I use this metaphor deliberately, becuase in an interview Simon Rattle gave recently, he referred to a conversation he had with Lutosławski. "Usually I'm the mustard" said the composer, "in concerts full of beefsteak".  For a change, said Lutosławski, he wanted to be the beefsteak. And so Rattle and the Berliners delivered. While the Brahms performance was straightforward, for Lutosławski. the orchestra pulled out all the stops. Very detailed, precise playing. Multiple layers of sound yet never muddied or confused. Major focus on the twelve brass players, each with interesting parts, solo and together: they're ranged in a line for visual as well as aural impact. So much is going on in this 35-minute piece that conducting it must be like juggling. Each element seems to function with its own dynamic, manic but carefully marshalled. Dark meat but palateable and enough mustard to spice things up. Overall the effect is freewheeling though purposeful  energy. The Proms audience loved it, stomping their feet for more.

Between the revolution in Poland in 1989 and the composer's death in 1994, he conducted his own music in Britain, including  a performance of the Third Symphony at the then cuting edge Newbury Festival. To my regret I didn't go, thinking it might be "too difficult"for me.(though I had no trouble with Nono and Szymanowski). Yet Lutosławski is perfectly accessible, and even Cage influenced fun, (more here) as this Proms audience discovered. So even if you missed the Prom live, catch it on broadcast (the Berliner Philharmoniker version in perpetual archive).

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