Bruckner: Symphony No.9
Abrahamsen: 3 Pieces for orchestra
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle
Royal Festival Hall, 30 May 2018
Although he has already taken up his appointment as Music Director to the London Symphony Orchestra, Simon Rattle’s contract with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is only just ending. In a magnificent farewell gesture, the Berlin Philharmonic escorted him home with two farewell concerts at the Royal Festival Hall. The first featured Bruckner’s Symphony No.9 in the four-movement version that Rattle has championed in recent years, using the version of the uncompleted Finale proposed by Nicola Samale, John A. Phillips, Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs, and Giuseppe Mazzuca in 2012. This is not the forum for a discussion on the merits of what, for the time being, seems to be the final say on the Finale or, indeed whether the Symphony should end with the extraordinary third-movement Adagio. But it does seem clear that Bruckner intended there to be a fourth movement Finale. 440 bars survive in full score, with around 117 bars in sketch form. The completion by Samale, Phillips, Cohrs, and Mazzuca expands those 557 bars to 653, adding 96 conjectural bars based on existing material.
Rattle has taken this version to heart, and clearly relishes the drama of the final movement, coming after the enormous Adagio. Lasting about 20 minutes, the restored Finale doesn’t outdo the 24-minute Adagio in length. The energy and sheer conviction of his conducting were brilliantly persuasive. The rhapsodic nature of the Finale allowed Rattle to explore the detail of Bruckner’s varied compositional ideas, as in the earlier movements. He was particularly good at negotiating the frequent link passages and extended crescendos in all four movements, maintaining careful control of the tension and suspense.
In a very Rattle programming, the concert started with the nine-minute ‘3 Pieces for orchestra’ by Hans Abrahamsen, given its UK premiere. It was a glorious little symphony of energy and evocative orchestral colour and suited both Rattle and the overall programme to a tee. Taking minimalism to its most complex extremes, Abrahamsen crammed a wealth of ideas into each movement. Rather than building to a climax, the third piece was based on the gentle rattle of egg-shakers. It was soon clear why the eight Berlin double basses were individually frantically practicing some tricky passages on stage well before any of the companions joined them. They had a key role in this piece.
Although still disgracefully male-dominated, the Berlin Philharmonic retains its distinctive colour and timbre, producing a flawless performance of a tricky programme. And Sir Simon Rattle continues to be one of my favourite conductors, working and cooperating with his fellow musicians, letting his own sheer energy and obvious passion for the music to create the performing environment. His style of direction, including, for example, his acknowledgement of the orchestral players before taking any personal bows himself, is a lesson to the more dictatorial and it’s-all-about-me conductors that still seem to survive from a long-gone era.
For some reason, the writer of the programme notes hadn’t twigged that the four-movement version of the Bruckner was being performed, and said nothing about it in the short description of just three movements of the symphony.