Thursday, November 18, 2010


Talk about Talk of the Town. Hotels are full, restaurants around the Big Tiled Building buzzing, and not a red or yellow rose left in florists. The Berliners are here and the week has been preoccupied with, if not devoted to, them.

The Concert Hall was glowing German gold from its crowded front foyer.

There were two programs:
Program One

Haydn Symphony No 99 in E Flat Major
Berg Three Pieces for Orchestra
Dean Komarov's Fall
Brahms Symphony No 2 in D Major

Program Two

Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances
Mahler Symphony No 1 in D Major

For programe one, Tuesday night's opening concert, we sat in the front row of Box X, a fantastic and not accidental choice. Perched above the first violins, and harps, with Sir Simon Rattle in full and close view, the clarity of sound was astounding. Not that this was entirely because of where we sat. It was entirely because of this phenomenal orchestra, but we were as well placed as possible I suspect to take advantage of the brilliance of such perfect ensemble playing.

From this legendary organic music machine came the Berlin sound, a big rich ballsy rather masculine sound spiked with the crystalline clarity that comes from extraordinary musicianship, an acute awareness of each member of the other and the whole, unfailingly integrated entries and dynamics, and the loving guidance of their conductor. The Haydn was like the Eisteddford set piece, the one that after the first ten bars everyone knows this is the winner, whatever their own choices would be. The incredible confidence of excellence in both player and listener.

And their own choices for the first program were simply marvellous. The Berg Three Pieces, for huge orchestral forces, which I had not ever heard live, and had only recently, and because of this encounter, spent time listening to, was devastating. The premonition of chaos, the haunting fading fraying edges of empire as the waltzing violin is snuffed out, till the frantic march to catastrophe is shattered by the most ghastly climactic Sarajevo moment. Not since I heard Mackerras's Siegfried Funeral March have I been so frightened by a sound, the sound of that final shot.

Brett Dean's Komarov's Fall was a spine tingling surprise. It is both incredibly beautiful and incredibly sad. From the opening violins evoking space signals, a sound so like the high pitched calls of parrots to each other as day fades as to be a certain pointer to a sound encyclopaedia of only an Australian, to the goose bumpy "weightless and floating" closing moments, again it was the starry sparkling clarity of sound that so astounded. And then there was Rattle blowing kisses to a man in the rear stalls, and he back, he Brett Dean of whom we are so proud, in a few incredible moments of raw public emotion, and mutual thanks. Listen here.

The Brahms was simply stunning, every theme laid out in perfect clarity, intertwined with love and loving attention to detail, and an acceleration to a climax of literally breathtaking intensity and impact.

The next night, Wednesday, we had managed to sit in our usual Sydney Symphony Orchestra seats, another deliberate move, to finally compare the local band with the best in the world under the same conditions, same seats, same hall.

Well, as good an experiment as it was, for the clarity carried, the sometimes muddiness of our Sydney players nowhere to be heard, there was no doubt where we wanted to be sitting, and that was back in Box X, from row, back amongst it again, immersed, drowning, exhilarated. There is now the need to rethink where we sit for the home games.

After the lovely balance of the first program, the Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances seemed a strange choice against the one we all had came for, the Mahler 1, which had been given a fine exposition by Mr Askenazy earlier this year. Again, the word that I can't get out of my mind is clarity. The hushed and reverent opening of the Mahler set the pattern. In a study of slow and steady revelation, Rattle opened and laid bare this work as never before. As never before seems to be a bit recurring too. It was slow, quite slow, though never stalled, never self indulgent, and yet the overreaching arch seemed slightly weakened, as if the peering into the depths meant some loss of totality, the details wondrous and marvellous nonetheless, yet the emotion of the vision stalled, unless the vision isn't really there yet, that yet to come as Mahler laid down his foundations.

But the thrill of the excellence, the insights, the magnificence of the delivery itself roused the usually sedate Sydney audience to its immediate feet, not in some slow bracket creep of standing ovation, but a sudden spontaneous eruption of gratitude.

Peter McCallum's informed praise is worth keeping on record, program one here, and two here.