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The Wild Man of Borneo loses his Way
on 28 January 2017
My friend Stewart Crowe penned the following lament in a review of Dudamel’s Pictures at an Exhibition on Amazon.UK:
"The Berlin Philharmonic has declined as an outfit exponentially since 1989. It was bankrupt when Rattle took over - indeed one must give (Sir Simon) credit for insisting that the musicians were paid before he took up tenure. The nadir was reached with the Dudamel’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. It is no coincidence that the Berlin Phil actually has no recording contract for the first time ever!"
For that and more I blame Abbado. What Valens was to Adrianople, what Heraclius was to Yarmouk, what Romanos IV Diogenes was to Manzikert, Uncle Claudio was to the Klang of the Berlin Philharmonic – and Sir Simon was never going to be the man to deliver redress. Hitherto, there had been two recordings that broadcast its decay like nothing else: Abbado’s Posthorn Serenade (Sony) from 1992 where the BP sounds like a glorified Chamber Orchestra of Europe; and Mehta’s bone-lazy tone-poems of Liszt from the middle of the decade. A triumvirate is now evident: Harnoncourt’s tubercular, unheroic, near-metronomic survey of Brahms from 1997 - and those are its good points!
First and foremost: I defy anyone to identify this orchestra as Karajan’s warhorse of yesteryear. Abbado and Rattle – among others – progressively untaught the BP to play Beethoven to the point that nowadays, it doesn’t know whether it’s Arthur or Martha or something in between when it’s asked to step up to the plate. The same is true of Brahms (and in saying this, I do not rate Rattle’s 2009 cycle with the BP). Here, the My Little Pony opening of the First Symphony – which is humorous in its own way – is a farewell to arms (don’t purchase this cycle until you’ve sampled it!). Passages such as 1’36”ff in the first movement of the Second Symphony or 0’44”ff in its counterpart of the Third wouldn’t have passed muster in Herbie’s day – how crude they are. Who would’ve thought that the first violins of the Berlin Phil, once a wonder of the world, would decline to a point where they can barely run up a kite (1’49”ff and 4’04”ff in the first movement of the Fourth); this is elegy. Gird yourself: the slow movements of the first two symphonies (in particular) are pallid and scared-of-themselves to the point where they probably need to change their panty-liners: Sesame Street comes with more angst and passion. Indeed, there are so many Ground Zeroes here, one should organise a bus-tour with popcorn.
With two Colts hanging from his belt, Clint says: “A man’s gotta know his limitations.” Much of the blame here is attributable to Harnoncourt who’s clearly befuddled in this domain and leads the orchestra into the nothingness. Here, he’s more of a gravedigger of tradition than conductor. Shovel in hand, we salute this iconoclast of sorts! Après nous le deluge!