Imagine balancing a truck on your fingertip. Something of that feeling was there when Simon Rattle launched himself upon Dvorák’s first Slavonic Dance (opus 46) with the Berlin Philharmonic on Thursday, in a “New Year’s Eve” concert repeated over the following two evenings. Rattle can take all the considerable weight of this orchestra in full flight and make of it something feather-light. Runs taken at breakneck speed, abrupt changes of tempo, sparkles and arabesques: all these and more were on display in the flashy opener.
Then came Grieg’s popular piano concerto, a fairly fail-safe crowd-pleaser with Evgeny Kissin at the keyboard. The erstwhile prodigy is now 40 years old. His stiff gait and averted eyes are more trademark than cause for remark, his technique is a given. For those who seek the fragile poetry of Grieg’s own pianism, Kissin’s playing is disappointingly robust. There is none of the tenuous reverie or transparency that the Norwegian composer favoured as a performer. In its place are phenomenal technical control, a solid sense of structure, and a dark sense of inner turbulence.
This was not a dialogue with the orchestra. Kissin had every note mapped out. Rattle, in response, seldom reined the orchestra in, so that for all the hefty deliberation of Kissin’s playing, it was often swamped by symphonic sound. Three quarters of the way through the concerto, Kissin cast a single astonished glance into the audience, as if to say, “Good heavens! Are you here too?”
That is one gesture of which Rattle would never be capable. At least half of his magic is his showmanship, which was back on full display after the interval. Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso oozed exotic mystique, while Salome’s Dance (Richard Strauss) managed to combine a feeling of clammy hysteria with a glittering surface. Stravinsky’s Firebird is also repertoire in which Rattle and the orchestra can shine – plenty of scope for exquisite solos, and just the kind of sharp caricature at which Rattle excels.
Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No. 1 was a final chance for exhibitionistic driving. With repertoire so familiar, the orchestra has a kind of “Look Ma, no hands!” glee that draws in the audience and sends everybody home happy. The Berliners, in choosing serious repertoire centred on dance, have found a formula for spectacle with content.