Berlin Philharmonic in Taipei

There are no words.

But I shall try.

Maybe it’s just me, but for some of these really special concerts from visiting ensembles (and/or just amazing performances all around), there’s a strange sense of connection, of appreciation and gratitude, that endear one to the performers, and in most cases, the face of the performers is the conductor. When he (or she) brings his band to your town to perform essentially for you, there’s a sense personalization, even a certain intimacy.

In the past, I had felt this most acutely with Maestro Cristoph Eschenbach, who led the Vienna Philharmonic here in Taipei for two evenings about six months ago. While the program didn’t contain Bruckner or Mahler or anything bigger than a Classical-era orchestra, it was a vibrant, exquisite two evenings of concerts that perfectly showed off both individual and overall virtuosity and perfection. Sitting in that seat those two nights, I realized I’d have paid twice what I did for the tickets. Christoph Eschenbach and one of the greatest orchestras on earth gave me a memory, nay, an experience I shall never forget.

And then Berlin came to town. I bought these tickets even further in advance than I’d purchased the Vienna (or Concertgebouw or Munich or Chicago) tickets, as there’s some weirdamazing connection between the Berlin Philharmonic and Taiwanese audiences. If I remember correctly what I read, Rattle has brought them here four times since his tenure with Berlin began in 2002. I don’t know if this past weekend was the fourth or made no. 5, but they are especially good to us. The Taipei concerts were the only stop on the Asian tour to get a live feed outside the concert hall (and on TV), and they speak very highly of local audiences.

No matter the reason, the Berlin Philharmonic will be in town! They’re doing their Beethoven cycle for this tour again, so on the two evenings, they played 1 & 9 and 2 &9 respectively. I’d heard Eschenbach and Vienna play Beethoven 1 when they were here, so I opted for the second night, and I’d actually never heard the ‘choral’ live until last night. Needless to say, it will be hard to top.

I had come down with awful allergies or a sinus infection or something, so I unfortunately wasn’t feeling my best, but was excited nonetheless. I’d seen Sir Simon Rattle sneak into the second half of the NSO’s Berlioz concert on Friday, while members of the band were holding master classes or getting suits tailored or whatever. He was just a few seats away, and is hard to miss in an audience of Asians.

Anyway, the concert hall was literally abuzz, more than I’ve ever seen it so. A metal detector and security check had been set up at the doors, and there were fancily dressed humans moving about, as if somehow the concert hall could suddenly hold more than its full capacity. I’ve been to sold-out shows, but never seen it like this. Blah blah anyway.

The same thought struck me about what makes the Berlin Philharmonic, or the Vienna Phil or Munich or New York, etc. A few of the basses, only three of them, tuned or rosined or did different things as people filed in. I knew (and was mildly disappointed that) Sarah Willis and Andreas Ottensamer wouldn’t be on the tour (at least not for our stops), but recognized a number of the other (also world-famous) players.

And then, would you believe it (obviously), Sir Simon Rattle walks out on stage to give the downbeat for Beethoven 2.

Maybe the effect of seeing Rattle in person is made greater by the fact that the interwebs are full of trailers and ads for the digital concert hall (for which we got 48-hour passes), where you can see this man and his band perform, the walking out, the downbeat, eye contact, the smiles, all of it, and now it’s happening before your very eyes. Maybe not fanboys over it like I might, but talk about high profile, not only from a musical standpoint, but all the recordings that came from them in the Karajan and Abbado eras, and now with Rattle, to see that iconic curly Einstein-esque hair, Rattle dressed all in black, with the Berlin Philharmonic in my hometown concert hall.

Beethoven 2 was swift and rich and splendid. I personally came to favor interpretations like those from Chailly’s cycle with the Gewandhaus, or Harnoncourt’s cycle, for their crispness and intensity, even if Chailly might go a bit too far with it. Berlin’s was just the slightest notch down from that kind of briskness, bringing a heavier, more intense, more rich feel to this early Beethoven symphony. Beyond just being played exquisitely, there was a richness of sound that was perceptibly yet incomprehensibly different. The intensity of Rattle’s leadership was acutely evident, that he was intense and focused, but never overpowering, always involved, but never overbearing. Berlin’s Beethoven 2, that “hideously writhing, wounded dragon” was nothing short of perfect. The thought struck me that there’s more than one way that something could be perfect, but they highlighted the Haydn-esque qualities, the humor, the raucousness and overall musicality of the work. That powerful undercurrent of lyricism and poetry, depth of richness that exist in Beethoven, was all the more obvious under Rattle’s baton, but the best was yet to come.

I should say at this juncture that I’ve been very fortunate so far to have had quite the rich experiences with hearing Beethoven’s symphonies live, as played by:

  1. Vienna Philharmonic/Eschenbach
  2. Berlin Philharmonic/Rattle
  3. Philharmonia/Salonen
  4. – –
  5. Chicago/Muti
  6. Concertgebouw/Gimeno
  7. Vienna Radio Symphony/Meister
  8.  – –

and now the crown jewel in, perhaps not only Beethoven’s output, but the output of an entire century, an entire culture, of classical music, the choral symphony no. 9, to be performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle with the BBC singers, as listed below:

The feeling one gets when a large work like this begins (be it Mahler, Bruckner, Shostakovich or Beethoven 9) is like a roller coaster being released from its dock, ticking forward. With those quiet, evanescent-sounding strings for the opening, the cars click up the incline that will propel the entire rest of the piece forward, along its one ‘track’. It’s exciting and a bit nerve-wracking.

The orchestra explodes in a passionate fury, thunderous timpani and roaring, rich strings. Through the first and second movements, Rattle was like a sorcerer of some kind, like he was creating the music with his hands as he went, like some quantum entanglement that meant thee players responded instantly and perfectly to his gestures, expressions and direction. The scherzo, if we keep to a roller coaster analogy, was sudden ups and downs, building regularly, then suddenly roaring to life, only again to disappear into almost imperceptible ppp. It was like I’d never heard this piece before. It was so intense, yet never overdone, emotionally charged, yet never tiring.

Our four vocal soloists walk out during the retuning before the third movement and take their places behind the orchestra, front and center of the choir. The third movement is blissful, a repose from the argument, the story that’s been building for a half hour or something already. Something else that’s readily apparent with this group is their unbelievable balance. I heard things in this piece I’d never heard before, not under Karajan or Harnoncourt, Leibowitz, Abbado, or Bernstein. Be it a small accent note from a horn, frilly tiddly bits from bassoons and/or clarinets, the textures, the interaction between sections, the overall balance and summation of everything written on paper, the result was one giant, living, breathing organism that perfectly executed everything, not a single thing out of place.

A chill runs down your spine when you realize you’ve crossed that line and stepped into the final movement. Another chill when the entire orchestra drops away to let cellos almost inaudibly introduce the famous ‘ode to joy’ theme, and bassoons sweetly, contrastingly play their line in the background. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to melt in your seat, to be powerless to stand if the building suddenly caught fire, this is it. The piece had built such momentum, almost literally, that it kept propelling itself, without a single drop in energy through to the very last note. The finale takes a few twists and turns here and there, the Turkish march bit with drum and cymbals, soloists reappearing, and through it all, I feel like I’m gasping for air, not just because of a sinus infection, but because… the music seemed to fill the space in the concert hall with such energy, such volume (of space not sound) that it pushed all the air out of the concert hall.

Like I said, words cannot express. At that moment, I was convinced (and still think it possible) that never in history has there been a more perfect performance of Beethoven’s ninth. How could there be? There was also something passionately emotional, even intimate, about the orchestra and the atmosphere. Even if (and I’m not just saying this because it’s Beethoven) I were completely deaf (okay, or just watching a feed without audio), there was a palpable energy, not just from Rattle, but the performers. ‘Playing their hearts out’ is a cliché I won’t use, but I’m hard pressed to think of something more appropriate. I was worried at times that some of them would come out of their chairs.

People were weeping, and I understood why, but also wondered if perhaps one of the reasons was because it was over. It’s a moment of sheer bliss when you’re listening to Beethoven’s ninth like you’ve never heard it before, like you don’t know what’s happening next, and are so caught up in the moment that you forget everything else, and Rattle led the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance that affected me (and likely the rest of the audience) in that profoundly a way last night. There’s something visceral about someone creating  that experience, about allowing someone to make you feel so moved, and it is an experience that will never again be repeated. It truly was an honor to be in the audience yesterday evening. That’s the best I can do. Thank you.


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