In the Beethoven anniversary year, the London musicians shook the Bonn Opera with the composer's Seventh Symphony — and delivered a stirringly somber message from the composer Alban Berg.
The brochure to the concert on February 22 contains a quote from the composer Richard Wagner: "Here every impetuosity, every longing and ranting of the heart becomes a blissful exuberance of joy." Wagner was describing the Symphony No. 7 by Ludwig van Beethoven. An interpretation better fitting those words than that by the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle is hard to imagine.
The Berlin Philharmonic's former principal conductor likes to combine classical and modern works in his programs, so there was also a piece from 1935: the Violin Concerto "In Memory of an Angel" by Alban Berg with Lisa Batiashvili as the soloist.
"The orchestra has always had a breadth of repertory encompassing 500 years of music," its managing director Kathryn McDowell explained to DW. "Now we find it very exciting to have a single person bringing the old and the new together."
Founded in 1904 and self-administered, the London Symphony is the world's most often recorded orchestra and has played the music to hundreds of films, including the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises. Known for its immense virtuosity and stupendously wide repertory, the group is notorious for its ability to render difficult scores at first reading. With 70 appearances a year in London and an additional 50 to 60 on tour worldwide, its datebook is full.
How German is Sir Simon now?
There has always been a strong following for Beethoven in Great Britain, even back in 1817, when the London Philharmonic Society commissioned his Symphony No. 9.
Liverpool-born Simon Rattle spent 16 years at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic, and two years after switching to London, retains his home in Berlin. Is there something German about him now? "We have always been in love with the German repertoire," answers McDowell with a laugh. "Now he is developing our sound, giving it more depth."
Berg's violin concert has plenty of depth; what the London musicians add is extreme clarity and transparence. Their glass-clear sound uncovers entire strata of Berg's multilayered concerto that this listener had never heard quite that way before. Added to that: an emotionally gripping rendition by the soloist. One can only agree with the British daily The Guardian: "Batiashvili's fearless playing is so tonally rich and technically immaculate."
The "angel" in the title of Alban Berg's violin concerto was Manon Gropius; the daughter of Alma Mahler and her second husband, the architect Walter Gropius, died of polio at age 18. Manon's grace and beauty, the image of a girl in her deathbed, her futile, surging will to live in the face of unavoidable death — everything was palpable in the performance.
Berg, Beethoven, mourning, joy
But what do the Berg concerto and the Beethoven symphony from the year 1813 have in common? One thing is suggested by the second movement, which listeners at the premiere two months after the Battle of Nations perceived as a funeral march. Not only then — the piece is still played at funerals today.
In utter contrast, the symphony's other three movements deliver a rhythmic fest of exuberant joy, captivating those familiar with the work and first-time listeners as well.
What happens when the great Rattle, who began his musical career as a percussionist and is known for his rhythmically compelling renditions, joins forces with the LSO, known for its brilliant sound and vigorous music making?
The performance spilled over with energy, and the third and fourth movements were seldom under the volume of mezzo-forte or forte. The sound is perhaps less finely sculpted than with many a German orchestra — notably the Berlin Philharmonic — but has a rarely encountered brilliance and verve.
At the end, there could be only one result: Needing to release its own pent up energy, the audience immediately leaped to its feet and yelled "Bravo!"