Berlin Philharmonic's Beethoven cycle bewilders

NEW YORK • Taking on Beethoven's nine symphonies in a concentrated marathon of concerts has long seemed almost a requisite undertaking for any conductor of stature - the ultimate public statement of artistic gravitas.

Still, that Simon Rattle, conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, is presenting a Beethoven cycle at Carnegie Hall on five consecutive evenings, starting yesterday, seems a little surprising.

After all, his tenure in Berlin, which began in 2002 and will end in 2018, has been a bracing antidote to the notion that a conductor proves himself solely in the totemic standards.

He arrived from the City of Birmingham Symphony in England, bent on bringing the world-renowned Berlin orchestra into the 21st century.

With the sometimes grudging support of the organisation and the players, he delivered. Under his leadership, the Philharmonic has become a risk-taking ensemble with strong ties to living composers and an essential contributor to the cultural education of young Berliners.

In the autumn of 2003, for his first programme at Carnegie Hall after taking the helm in Berlin, he and his energised musicians did play Beethoven, but as part of an adventurous declaration of purpose.

They offered a vibrant account of Beethoven's Symphony No. 6, the Pastoral, after compelling performances of Bartok's Music For Strings, Percussion And Celesta and Ligeti's Violin Concerto. The programme suggested a thematic link among these works: Each score draws upon folk idioms.

Over the years, Rattle continued to demonstrate his strong commitment to contemporary music by imaginatively mixing old and new in his Carnegie Hall programmes, pairing Mahler or Haydn, with, say, a mystical work by the French Modernist master Henri Dutilleux or an audacious recent piece by Thomas Ades.

Sometimes, you get the sense that when conductors programme contemporary works or engage in innovative projects, they are building up credit. Having paid heed to the present day, in other words, they have earned the right to take a break and bask in, for example, a Beethoven cycle.

The Berlin Philharmonic under Rattle has never been that kind of ensemble. Still, that is the feeling I had when this cycle was announced as part of Carnegie's season. (This is the first instalment in Rattle's two-season Perspectives series at the hall; perhaps next year's will be more daring.)

I do not mean to sound down on Beethoven's astonishing symphonies. And it is a good bet that Rattle and his players will bring fresh thinking and impressive execution to these beloved scores. But it is almost impossible to present a Beethoven cycle without giving the impression that classical music is stuck in the same old canon.

It often seems that appointments of music directors to major orchestras come down to assessments of how excitingly a contender conducts Beethoven, as if that were by far the most important part of the job.

Are surveys of a major composer's complete works in a single genre always problematic? Not at all. I was deeply affected to hear the Alexander String Quartet play all 15 Shostakovich string quartets in 2006 in the intimate concert hall at the Baruch Performing Arts Center in Manhattan.

Beethoven's symphonies are different. With each of these works, written over 25 years, he marshalled thoughts, explored new realms and reannounced himself. Hearing them as a group, however ravishing, may not be the ideal way to grasp each one. That is why it can be so revealing to hear Beethoven's symphonies, peerlessly influential, in a broader historical context, as Rattle did by pairing the Pastoral with Bartok and Ligeti.

Rattle might argue that his Beethoven cycle is just as rich a slice of the Berlin Philharmonic's distinguished history.

The performances may well be powerfully committed. And, of course, most people attending these programmes will hear only one or two of them and feel understandably lucky.

But coming from an institution that has shown us, as much as any, what a major modern orchestra can really be, making a big statement with this most well-worn of cycles is a missed opportunity.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 18, 2015, with the headline 'Berlin Philharmonic's Beethoven cycle bewilders'. Print Edition | Subscribe