December 30, 2013 5:40 pm

Silvesterkonzert, Philharmonie, Berlin – review

Lang Lang brought glitter and sparkle, while Simon Rattle added darkness
Simon Rattle©Getty

Simon Rattle

Chuck Norris trumps Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Volvo truck splits feat in a wonderful new spoof on YouTube featuring two jet planes. Hearing the Berliner Philharmoniker chew through Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances recalls this kind of overblown man-meets-machine one-upmanship. It’s shamelessly exhibitionistic, it’s improbably precise and it looks pretty dangerous from the outside.

The orchestra and its chief conductor have made Dvořák a New Year’s eve tradition in their annual celebratory concerts, along with Brahms’ Hungarian Dances. To dance without waltzing – thus the orchestra sets itself apart from its notional New Year’s eve competitors in Vienna and Dresden. The TV ratings wars of recent years against the Dresden Staatskapelle have simmered down, with the orchestras settling on different channels and – more importantly – different time-slots for their broadcasts. If you wanted to, you could spend the whole of New Year’s eve watching orchestral concerts on television.

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The Berliners are, of course, more thrilling when not constrained to the limits of a flat screen, and nothing beats the live experience.

This year Lang Lang is back, bringing Prokofiev’s third piano concerto – not exactly standard party music, but in this rendition full of glitter and sparkle. Presumably by the time the third concert is broadcast, orchestra and soloist will be together; as it was, there were a number of times when things slipped alarmingly. Van Damme and Norris would have tumbled from their respective perches. Perhaps the analogy is unfair. The orchestra is not a machine. But Lang Lang sometimes plays like one. His technical precision is dazzling, his phrasing is elegant, and he makes it all look effortless. Visible struggle need not be part of Prokofiev, but nonchalance jars. What is the music actually saying?

Simon Rattle kept a note of darkness in the concert’s second half, with the slow third movement of Hindemith’s Symphonic Dances, and some lesser-known pieces from Khatchaturian’s Gayane, as well as the overused Sabre Dance.

“Same procedure as every year,” Rattle quipped to the audience, before launching into cheerful Brahms encores. It is a mark of how German he has become that he can quote the local favourite New Year’s eve film, Dinner for One – perhaps he will take more than a touch of Berlin with him when he leaves the orchestra in 2018.


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