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MUSIC REVIEW

Berlin Philharmonic returns with Brahms, Schoenberg

By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / November 17, 2009

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One of the most important unions in the orchestral world - Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic - is looking strong these days. After rumors of some marital bickering, orchestra and conductor have agreed to a partnership that will last until at least 2018. EMI Classics has also renewed their recording contract. And, most importantly, evidence of the musical chemistry between the two is incontrovertible, at least as presented in Sunday afternoon’s excellent Celebrity Series performance in Symphony Hall.

On the program were Brahms’s Third and Fourth Symphonies, repertoire the orchestra has recently re-recorded, with a seldom performed work by Schoenberg tucked in between. From the opening of the Brahms Third, it was clear we were in for an afternoon of highly rewarding music-making. Certain details stood out: the spaciousness of phrasing in the final paragraphs of that first movement, the artful diminuendos in the Andante that seemed to remove sound from the stage grain by grain, and, in the third movement, the orchestra’s ability to project expressive nuance within a piano dynamic.

At these moments Rattle could be seen asserting his leadership, but for much of the afternoon he seemed content to coax the orchestra along with minimal intervention. You know these scores, I know these scores, he seemed to be saying to his players. Let’s just make this music happen.

All orchestral musicians appreciate conductors who, when appropriate, stand back and let them do their jobs, but very few ensembles in turn step up to fill the space the way Berlin does. Sure, principal players are demonstrative leaders in most bands, but here you could observe remarkable musical investment emanating from every corner of the string section.

That core sense of enfranchisement yielded felicitous results and a sense of organic unity in both Brahms works. The Fourth had volcanic energy where called for, and the opening of the Allegro Giocoso in particular seemed to leap off the stage. Solo contributions from the brass and woodwinds were dependably strong. The horn section played with a tone at once rock-solid and gleaming.

Schoenberg’s “Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene’’ seemed right at home in such august Brahmsian company. The composer as a young man deeply admired Brahms and once stood silently next to the old master in a concert hall. On Sunday he was more voluble, and Rattle and the orchestra gave a lucid and engaging account of this challenging score.

BERLIN PHILHARMONIC Simon Rattle, conductor

At: Symphony Hall,

Sunday afternoon

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