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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sumptuous, fully committed readings that guide our ears into enjoying every work, 13 Sep 2011
This review is from: Schoenberg/Brahms: Piano Quartet No. 1 (Audio CD)
Simon Rattle has a long-held fondness for Schoenberg's orchestration of Brahms's early, ebullient Piano Quartet in G minor. I remember an outdoor broadcast where it appeared on the program soon after his arrival in Berlin. I think it's fair to say that only the Berlin Phil. could go on tour with "difficult" Schoenberg and sell out the house, as they did a couple of seasons ago when Rattle programmed three concerts pairing Brahms and Schoenberg. The piano quartet arrangement was the most conservative offering, with the other two more challenging works on this CD being featured later, along with Erwartung. These are concert recordings done in the Philharmonie preceding that tour in the fall of 2009, and everything is as splendid and sumptuous as one remembers.

For a long time I've clung to Robert Craft's decades-old recording of the Brahms-Schoenberg with the Chicago Sym., reissued on rather glassy sound by Sony. Craft isn't a professional conductor, and I imagine the orchestra carried him on their backs. Rattle delivers the best reading we're likely to hear for the foreseeable future. I think the original chamber version is much better than the so-called "Brahms fifth Symphony" that Schoenberg devised. It's not just a matter of scale. Brahms would not have considered that this material, however enjoyable, met his standards for a symphony worthy to follow in Beethoven's footsteps. Rattle gives a convincing reading with every attempt at refinement and beauty. Even so, one longs for the "gypsy" finale to arrive and inject some bumptiousness into the proceedings. Even here the rousing excitement of the piano isn't duplicated by scurrying winds.

There's more to gain from Rattle's harrowing reading of Schoenberg's "Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene," an innocuous title for what turns out to be his version of a horror movie score - he had no idea of the plot but was instructed to write music that evoked a terrifying mood. It's touching that the composer felt optimistic, even near the end of his life, that Hollywood would be interested in his music. I can't tell by ear if the music is atonal or 12-tone, but this is music to sit back and absorb through mood alone -- it's restless, anxious, and premonitory rather than outright shocking most of the time, but Schoenberg throws in some chamber-of-horror touches that do the trick. At just over 9 min. the work is quite effective, and here we have a deluxe performance to augment Boulez's early, more analytical account on Sony. I can see playing this before showing Murnau's "Nosferatu."

EMI has reissued Rattle's early version of the Chamber Symphony no. 1 with his Birmingham orchestra, and there's no real reason for the duplication. Both recordings are for full orchestra, not a chamber group, and both are organized with clarity and expressed with a songful flow. Despite the early opus of Op. 9, the tonality of the score is loosely attached to a key and the structure is complex and tightly wound. Yet Schoenberg's expressionistic bent, not yet fully realized, blends smoothly into late romantic voluptuousness in this reading, so the listener can once again sit back and allow the music to come to him. Few of us can penetrate Schoenberg's intellectual density, yet is champions have insisted all along that he was interested in moving his audience with the same kind of emotions that diatonic music evokes. Rattle does all he can to guide our ears, and if you are open, this reading is not hard to appreciate.

Top-flight orchestras and conductors haven't approached Schoenberg in a while, which makes a new addition all the more valuable, particularly when the greatest orchestra in the world is applying itself with full intensity.
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Tracked by 3 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 10 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 14 Sep 2011 03:55:45 BDT
Geoff says:
A minor correction: Rattle's 1995 version of Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No 1 was of the original chamber version (with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group) not the later (and rarer) version for full orchestra recorded on this new disc.

In reply to an earlier post on 10 Oct 2011 10:49:13 BDT
D. S. CROWE says:
SFL is right in saying that Scoenberg tried (and succeded ) in moving his listeners using the same as tenets as more diatonic composers, and many of us do not find his intellectual density impenetrable-and the full orchestral revision of Chamber Symphony is suely one of his most approachable works, alongside, Gurrelider, Pelleas, Verklarte etc and although the scoring is dense, the music argument is tonal and linear. Schoenberg can often be "fun"-he could send himself up.I'm not suggesting he does in this piece, but I hear it as a gloroius late romantic wallow. The Brahms IS fun, especially in the rollcking finale.
Best Orchestra in the world? Highly subjective, but I would argue that accolade goes to the Vienna Philharmonic, closely followed by the Dresden Staatskapelle, both of which are currently superior to the BPO, and the BRSO is at least its equal. The BPO of today does not resemble HvK's band at any stage of his tenure-you can listen to the VPO recorded in the 40's and know instantly it's them. Ultimately I suppose it's do you prefer a Rolls-Royce or a Bentley? Geoff is right about the earlier Rattle-you will NOT be duplicating a performance of the same work. Stewart Crowe

In reply to an earlier post on 10 Oct 2011 22:49:21 BDT
It's anything but a consensus that Vienna is greater than Berlin, and few put Dresden above Berlin. It's also a new idea to me the BRSO is equal to Berlin. Of course these matters are up to the choice of the individual listeners, but it IS nearly a consensus that Berlin has better playing on the individual level than any other orchestra. Only Berlin can brag an Emmanuel Pahud or Albrecht Mayer, not to mention the dozen other names I could rattle off.

In reply to an earlier post on 11 Oct 2011 11:21:13 BDT
Last edited by the author on 11 Oct 2011 11:25:36 BDT
D. S. CROWE says:
Greetings Andrew,As Someone who attends the concerts of all these orchestras and more, my own view is that the VPO 's unique warm sound engendered by its specific technique , especially the dirty string tone and the unique horns and trumpets is preferable to the that of the BPO-and I know legions (well, plenty!) who agree. This is now coupled with a virtuosity that was perhaps lacking especially in the 70s. Reiner Kuchl, Franz Bartolomey, Werner Hink, Ronald Janezic etc. have musical careers extending way beyond the orchestral life. The fact that it is a "slow" orchestra adds to the unique characteristics. No-one is denying the excellence of the BPO, but it is not possible to assert "the best orchestra in the world" without adding "in my view" of "for me." A recent supposedly learned musical analysis in Music magazine rated the Concertgebouw as the best, Berlin second-the VPO came 4th and BRSO 5th. Of course this survey was meaningless and I don't agree with their conclusions, as you won't either!. If you get the chance to hear the BRSO in concert, you will be overwhelmed by the virtuosity and a warmth of sound often lacking in the more "brilliant " BPO. It IS generally held that Dresden has the most homogenous and silky CLEAN string tone-not the dirty tone of Vienna-and they too now have a virtuosity at least equal to Berlin-and we haven't mentioned Leipzig!!! I 've always felt that HvK's performances with the VPO were better than his BPO ones. With the VPO he wasn't imposing his will, his own creation Berlin sound , on the orchestra-he was wise enough to know that his best course was to bring out the special characteristics of the Vienna orchestra to the full, and thus his performances were more realaxed and more musically fulfiilling. His Schumann 4th recorded live in the Musikverein and available direct from the VPO is a classic case, and there are many more. In my first post I was simply trying to explain that it is interesting how these works register differently. I hear the Brahms as more "frothy" than portentous-and we all know that Papa Brahms did have a sense of fun, as did Schoenberg. The important thing is that we both love the disc, which for my money is the best to emerge from Berlin under Rattle and every lover of great music making should hear it. It was NOT a criticism of your review-or SFL's=both of which are excellent, merely a discussion of my slightly different view of the works therein.
Best Regards, Stewart.

In reply to an earlier post on 16 Oct 2011 11:41:55 BDT
D.S. Crowe,

I find your comments interesting, although I certainly haven't come to the same conclusions. While you say that we should stick a disclaimer in when we call Berlin the world's greatest orchestra, you don't feel the need to when you call Vienna the greatest; you give no disclaimer when you put Dresden above Berlin, but this is a minority view if there ever was one. If I were to guess, if one was able to make a poll in which all experienced listeners were to vote (an impossibility, I know), if Berlin were to be set against Vienna, it would be fairly close, but Berlin would probably win by 60% of the vote. If Berlin would be set against Dresden, it would win hands down, with over 80% of the vote. Actually, giving Dresden 20% is very kind, as you are the only person I've ever heard give that orchestra such high esteem, and I've heard the views of dozens of experienced listeners. I know we're stalking a big claim when we say the Berliners are the world's greatest orchestra without adding disclaimers, but we love the orchestra so much and can't help it. Santa Fe Listener has listened to 100's of recordings of both orchestras, so he certainly has the authority to make such a claim.

But you struck on something that I always want to talk about. You said that Karajan's Berlin is a different orchestra than the Berlin of today. Very true. Karajan's sound was quite homogenized, a huge wall of sound achieved by Karajan's intensity of control. Both Abbado and Rattle have freed the orchestra from Karajan's iron fist (don't get me wrong--I love Karajan) and allow the orchestra to show off much more individuality. It's an orchestra of virtuosos, one that can thrive in individual details like no other orchestra. Personally, I think Rattle's Berlin is the better orchestra than Karajan's. Rattle makes Berlin sound like a virtuoso orchestra more than either of his predecessors.

I'll close with a quote from Karajan explaining why he preferred Berlin to Vienna: "If I tell the Berliners to step forward, they do it. If I tell the Viennese to step forward, they do it. But then they ask why".

Thanks for participating in this discussion. I find it fascinating.

Posted on 16 Oct 2011 12:09:25 BDT
Geoff says:
Personally, I'm baffled by the need to even discuss which is the 'best' orchestra in the world (whatever that means). All the orchestras that have been mentioned are wonderful in their own way and are at their best in different situations but that doesn't make one better than another.

From personal experience the Berliner Philharmoniker seems to give more consistent performances than the Wiener Philharmoniker, whom I have heard play on 'auto-pilot' quite a few times now but that hardly makes one or other the 'greater'. Likewise, the BP may be a better orchestra now than under Karajan, certainly more flexible and sensitive, but that would depend on the quality of playing one prefers.

Anyone who heard the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in London last week might have another view on this discussion too!

In reply to an earlier post on 16 Oct 2011 12:36:10 BDT
Last edited by the author on 16 Oct 2011 13:03:04 BDT
D. S. CROWE says:
Hi Geoff- I quite agree. It all started by my taking Andrew to task-lightly-over his describing the Berlin Phil as "the best orchestra in the world"-and because I disagree I suggested he added "in my view"or some such as I do when expressing as definitive a view as that. Most orchestras in the front rank today are technically superb-it is the glorious sound of the VPO with the unique horns and trumpets, their continuity of string instruments and string playing technique that make it the best for me and countless others. I totally agree about the Lucerne Festival Orchestra-the Schumann and Bruckner 5 were stunning, as indeed has been the Philharmonia in the Maazel Mahler cycle. The BRSO are similarly glorious in concert. In Germany, the Dresden Orchestra is rated as highly or higher than the BPO-it certainly offers more beautiful sound- in my view. They are all superb and it is highly subjective. I don't agree that the BPO sounds better under Rattle than Karajan-I've been to both and for me there is no comparison as under Rattle I find the sound more anonymous than the immediately indentifiable Karajan-but it's a personal view. You are spot on though when you mention the auto-pilot scenario-it DOES depend on who's waving the stick!!
That's enough of this-as long as we all agree it's not an American orchestra!! Best Regards, Stewart Crowe

In reply to an earlier post on 16 Oct 2011 13:02:00 BDT
D. S. CROWE says:
Andrew and Geoff-A vignette you may enjoy, although some names are witheld!! In 2000 I was due to attend the premiere of a new production of Zauberflote at the Wiener Staatsoper.
The Kurier and Presse were full of controversy as it was to be conducted by an English conductor of the " authentic" (HIP) school,who eschews vibrato at every turn and who was declaiming about how he would transform this work. You can guess who it was. At the performance I was shocked-as the VPO played it like they've always done!!! 2 days later we were in Demel's having coffee and cake when I realised I was sitting next to a very senior violinist in the VPO (VERY senior), and I engaged him in conversation. He was charming, and I raised the Zaunberflote/vibrato issue with him. He laughed and said "He's not the first conductor to tell us we are playing it wrong! We let them fuss away during rehearsals, then when it comes to the performance-we play it our way. They soon see the sense of it!!" ( The conductor's not been back!) That's Vienna. Karajan loved the VPO and they him, but he could not "bend" the sound to his will as he could the BPO. I'm sure you know the sad tale that in the final falling out between K and the BPO, they left him high and dry in New York with concerts booked and no orchestra with pretty well hours to go.The VPO chartered a plane at its own expense and flew out with no contract, no fees agreed etc. to save the "Old Warrior" from embarassment. Those who were at the concerts say it was the most emotionally committed and moving concerts they ever heard. The Karajan BPOconcerts in the late 1980's at the RFH were stunning in every respect, despite K's all too obvious frailty.Rattle's BPO Mahler 5 at the RFH a few years back when he was pushing the CD was to me, an embarassment. He has got to grips with the balance and sound world at last, and it IS a glorious orchestra, no argument. Hope this is interesting. Best regards, Stewart Crowe.

In reply to an earlier post on 5 Nov 2011 11:16:31 GMT
Adamos says:
A question re: Vienna Phil - does anyone know if they still have all their strings specially made? They used to get them all (at least violins, violas and cellos, not sure about Double basses) from a workshop round the back of the Gesellschaft des Musikfreunde. I remember visiting there in 1987 but when I returned, some 20+ years later it was gone. It was this that gave the VPO its unique string tone. The musicians would use their own instruments when they played with other bands, so the effect was never replicated elsewhere.

In reply to an earlier post on 7 Nov 2011 12:15:10 GMT
D. S. CROWE says:
Greetings Adamos-you are right on all counts. During the mid-noughties, the Musikverein renovated and expanded the smaller halls, and this and relocated admin space encroached in to surrounding buildings.
The workshop is now located several streets up, more or less parallel to the Stadt Museum-you enter via the courtyard next to the Bosendorfer showroom.
They don't so much make as renovate and refurbish the unique strings of the orchestra unless an instrument is beyond redemption. Many of the fiddles and cellos were used under Mahler etc. Just as crucial are the brass-the unique "F" Horns are only used by the VPO and similarly with the bore of the trumpets etc.
Interestingly, the Philharmoniker is not the resident orchestra of the Musikverein-that is the Tonkunstler Orchestra (and very fine it is too!).
The Konzerthaus when opened was designated as the Philharmonic's resident hall, but that arrangement fell away and it is now the resident hall of the Wien RSO. Both the Philharmonic and Symfoniker are engaged for concerts by the the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Jeunesse, and in the case of the Philharmonic their own morning subscription concerts. Both orchestras perform in both venues. The only genuine residence the Philharmonic has is the Staatsoper, where its members play nightly.
Some years back, the Symfoniker and Philharmonic swopped instruments as an experiment-it didn't go well for either band-the technique is the thing it appears. Best Regards, Stewart
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