The Performance of Haydn, Chin & Brahms

Photo: Monika Ritterhaus.

The 2014-15 classical music season may be drawing to a close, but the Berlin Philharmoniker and their Music Director Sir Simon Rattle cannot be accused of taking things any easier. With a programme ranging from the epitome of the Classical style, brooding Romanticism to the cuttingly contemporary, Thursday night’s concert at the Berlin Philharmonie was undoubtedly varied, requiring Rattle and his players to switch quickly between styles. Yet the transition between them remained smooth. Although the announcement was made on Monday that the Russian conductor Kirill Petrenko will take over as Music Director in 2018, Rattle still very much holds the reigns of this orchestra.

The evening opened with Haydn’s Symphony No. 80 in D minor. The work is scored for chamber orchestra – strings, a few winds and two horns – a smaller ensemble than that required for the other works on the programme. Rattle nevertheless brought out Haydn’s hugely characterful writing. He showed the extremes of expression the Berlin Philharmoniker are capable of even without the greater timbral possibilities of a large orchestra. In the second slow movement, for example, they were incredibly responsive to the subtle dynamic changes Rattle asked for. Meanwhile, they captured the unpredictability of Haydn’s sturm und drang (storm and stress) style in the first movement. Rattle took full advantage of Haydn’s humorous pauses, provoking some chortles from the audience.

The following Le Silence des Sirènes by contemporary Korean composer Unsuk Chin provided a drastic contrast. The work is inspired by sirens: the mysterious creatures who lure sailors to their deaths through their seductive singing. Chin wrote the work for the soprano Barbara Hannigan, and it was she who performed it on Thursday evening. Hannigan was the ideal siren. By allowing herself to move freely, she convincingly assumed the siren’s slinky character. But most important was Hannigan’s astonishing ability to make Chin’s otherworldly music sound like a mother tongue to her. Her performance was both mystical and natural.

Krystian Zimerman. Photo: Hiromichi Yamamoto

Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman joined the orchestra for Brahms’s First Piano Concerto in D minor. The work calls for considerable maturity from the pianist. Though highly difficult, it should not be turned into a showpiece. Yet Zimerman was so at ease with the work that he avoided drawing attention himself by highlighting its virtuosic demands.

Rattle achieved an excellent balance between orchestra and pianist. The Berlin Philharmoniker might have captured the monumentality and exciting sense that anything could happen at the work’s opening, but they died right down for Zimerman’s first entrance. This allowed Zimerman to project whilst not having to force his sound in order to be heard. The orchestra responded to the richness in Zimerman’s playing too. After his first movement solo cadenza, the audience were indulged by an enchanting entry from the winds, followed by some extraordinarily beautiful string playing.

With the highly anticipated announcement made this week on Rattle’s successor, it is tempting to consider how the Berlin Philharmoniker’s future will take shape. That, as always, remains uncertain. But for the present, things are very much business as usual for Rattle and the Berlin Philharmoniker.

Joseph Haydn Symphony No. 80 in D minor
Unsuk Chin Le Silence des Sirènes
Johannes Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15

Music Director Sir Simon Rattle
Barbara Hannigan Soprano
Krystian Zimerman Piano
The Berliner Philharmoniker


Hazel is a an arts and culture writer based in Berlin. Classical music might be her speciality, but all things artsy, cultural and interesting also fit her palette. Follow her on Twitter with @hazel_rowland or read her blog here.

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