by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Oct. 22, 2001.
At Carnegie Hall the other night, a middle-aged concertgoer in a gray suit stood up and bowed toward the stage three times, his arms stretched out in front of him. The object of his homage was the Berlin Philharmonic, which had just finished playing Beethoven’s Seventh. Perhaps someone was able to explain to the musicians that the gesture was not a religious reference but what Americans call a "We’re not worthy" bow. As strange as it was to see this Yankee Stadium display in Carnegie, the Berliners were so staggeringly good that it seemed a sensible response.
Even Beethoven in his deafness would have perceived that something extraordinary was happening. You could see how fine the playing was. One test of an orchestra is to watch the first and second violins: in lesser ensembles, and even in some better ones, you will notice a certain amount of committed activity in the front desks and a lot of halfhearted sawing elsewhere in the section. The Berlin backbenchers play with the fury of celebrity soloists. During contrapuntal passages, as figures are traded from one section to another, the entire ensemble sways this way and that, like an orchard in a storm. The orchestra is an organism that is sensitive to the slightest irregularity: whenever a violinist in the back has a problem with a string, a wave of anxiety passes over his neighbors, and is relieved only when the overwrought rookie has tuned up and resumed.
The Berliners are famous for their darkly glowing timbre—the musical equivalent of a Rembrandt interior. The deep-voiced instruments may not play any louder than those in other orchestras, but they are emphatically more cohesive and in tune. In place of the usual vague rumbling of double basses, for example, you hear clean, booming tones. When the Berliner basses take up the corkscrew figure that drives the finale of the Seventh Symphony, it is as if a Russian men’s choir were singing underneath the floor. Basses, timpani, trombones, and bassoons produce a precisely calibrated thrum, which, by some acoustic trick, seems to be coming from all around and even inside you. In the grip of this illusion, you understand how the orchestra became a political animal in nineteenth-century Europe, and how Beethoven became a new kind of artist hero. Primal switches are tripped, and men in suits are moved to do strange things.
The Berliners, in their three-concert series at Carnegie Hall, matched the emotions of the hour by emphasizing Beethoven in his heroic mode: the Third, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Symphonies, together with the "Egmont" Overture. It was reassuring to hear these intensely familiar works again. They were landscapes that had remained unchanged, yet they were lit up with fresh intelligence and passion. Just as Beethoven himself never tired of reworking his material, the Berliners have the ability to fall in love again with music they have performed a hundred times. For this reason, they play Beethoven better than anyone.
Since its founding, in 1882, the Berlin Philharmonic has been led by five men, each of them carved into the memory of the city. First came Hans von Bülow, the ambidextrous apostle of Brahms and Wagner, who used to make caustic, cryptic speeches from the podium, on one occasion expounding the anarchist philosophy of Max Stirner. Then there was Arthur Nikisch, a hypnotically elegant stylist who won the admiration of Toscanini. (After conducting at La Scala, Nikisch commented on the quality of the orchestra, and Toscanini said to him, "It is a bad orchestra. You are a good conductor.") Wilhelm Furtwängler, the maestro of the Hitler era, reached the zenith of his art just as Germany was sinking to its nadir. Herbert von Karajan brought to bear a creepy cult of personality and an exalted understanding of orchestral sound.
Claudio Abbado, who succeeded Karajan in 1989, and is now entering his final season with the orchestra, may seem a little mild in comparison with those sacred monsters. In a way, he has already been overshadowed by his successor, Simon Rattle, who forced a restructuring of the orchestra’s finances even before he signed his contract. Abbado is a peculiarly humble leader who has failed to cultivate a Karajanesque mystique in the press. He has issued a sizable number of recordings, but few of these have had the impact of Furtwängler’s. Still, Abbado’s performances have a special aura, and they have deepened with the years. He is probably too pure a spirit to admit that his recent battle with stomach cancer has changed his musicianship, but the Carnegie concerts showed a new urgency and simplicity, as if he knows what counts.
Consider his interpretation of the "Eroica," a work that should by now have yielded all its secrets. Scholars never tire of writing about the C sharp that crops up in the opening E-flat-major cello theme: it is a detour that seems to trigger a host of chaotic, centrifugal energies in the first movement. In many performances, the cellos stress the errant note, as if to make a deliberate gesture of it. Abbado, however, has the cellos fade a little as they approach the C sharp, creating a twinge of unease. Throughout the opening movement, Beethoven’s tendency toward triumphalism is held in check, and the darkness of the music comes to the fore. Only in the tragic landscape of the Funeral March does the orchestra let loose at full strength.
Up to this point, Abbado’s "Eroica" shares the brooding atmosphere of Furtwängler’s reading, in which the hero seems to be struggling not against external enemies but against an inner drive toward negation and death. Furtwängler’s conception is, in every way, grander and deeper, but it has a flaw: it does not quite know what to do with the final two movements, with their unexpected playfulness and wit. At that point, the grand style becomes merely heavy. Abbado capitalizes on his prior restraint: his orchestra has energy left to burn, and it becomes an innocent, physical beast, shaking off the despair that had brought it to a standstill a few moments before. This is a subtler heroism, one in which a man achieves greatness by stepping back from darkness into light. His hardships become, as Beethoven wrote, "signposts of a happy life."
Scholars have often treated Beethoven as a collection of split personalities—the classicist, the heroic romantic, the musing proto-modernist. Abbado manages to erase the usual distinctions, so that the hyperdramatic Fifth Symphony is given an exceptional lyrical flow, and the "Pastorale" is capped by a storm of ear-splitting violence. The full results of the conductor’s investigations can be found in a complete Beethoven cycle on the Deutsche Grammophon label, which may be the most authoritative traversal since Karajan’s in the nineteen-sixties. As Beethoven cycles pile up uselessly, it is good to report on one that seems essential.
The Carnegie concerts were not all Beethoven. Maurizio Pollini joined the orchestra for a magisterial account of the Brahms D-Minor Concerto, and, on the first night, Thomas Quasthoff sang five Mahler songs: "Reveille," "Praise from a Lofty Intellect," "The Drummer Boy," "St. Anthony’s Sermon to the Fishes," and "I Am Lost to the World." The pairing of Quasthoff’s tiny form with Abbado’s gaunt profile was a moving sight: each of these men has in some way been wounded, and each has found new strength. Quasthoff’s delivery grows ever more thrillingly direct, with certain sly phrasings taken from the classic American pop-song repertory that he sings so well on the side. Loud notes are as strong as steel; soft ones settle like feathers next to your ears.
As if this were not enough, the Berliners played a string of encores: the Third Entr’acte from Schubert’s "Rosamunde," a reprise of the "Egmont," and all fifteen minutes of the Prelude and Liebestod from "Tristan und Isolde." This last was a frenzy of sound that melted into almost human voices. I wasn’t alone in thinking that there was something uncanny about the performance: we saw Abbado there, conducting brilliantly, but another force had taken hold. We seemed to have entered into one of those golden-age Berlin recordings, from which all the scratches had been removed and all shadows banished.