The best orchestra in the world
If you want to start a fight among classical music fans, ask them: "Who's the best orchestra in the world?'
Nationalists will proudly point to the great American orchestras--the grand symphonies of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, the brash bands of Cleveland and Chicago, or the sophisticated ensembles of San Francisco and Los Angeles. Eurocentrics will politely nominate the symphonies of London, Paris, Amsterdam, or Dresden, while the Russians will no doubt make the case for the orchestras of St. Petersburg or Moscow.
In the end, it really all comes down to two orchestras: the Wiener Philharmoniker (Vienna Philharmonic) and Berliner Philharmoniker (Berlin Philharmonic). Both have long and storied histories playing and often premiering the greatest works in the repertoire under the greatest conductors of the past 150 years. And both have distinctive tones: the super-suave Viennese orchestra's is rich, smooth, and creamy, while the super-virtuoso Berlin orchestra's is crisp, polished, and powerful.
But the big difference is that while the Wiener always has been the orchestra of the Vienna State Opera with a sideline as a symphonic orchestra, the Berliner has always been an exclusively symphonic orchestra, and there's a bright clarity to its playing and a deep familiarity in its performances that not even the Austrian orchestra can top. Plus, despite the undoubted virtuosity of the New York, London, St. Petersburg, and Viennese orchestras, nothing can touch the sheer skills of the Berlin band. At its best, every piece it plays sounds like it was written for it.
For the first great orchestral concert of the season, the UMS is presenting the Berliner Philharmoniker on Tuesday, November 17, under new music director Simon Rattle. When the Germans were last here in 2001, they were led by Claudio Abbado. In his decade with the orchestra, the Italian conductor had sharpened its ensemble by bringing in younger players while scrupulously maintaining the tonal opulence of his own predecessor, Herbert von Karajan.
This time, the first unknown for local audiences is the
repertoire: Brahms' Third and Fourth Symphonies plus Schoenberg's Accompanying Music to a Film Scene. While Brahms' tragic Fourth is often performed hereabouts, the heroic Third has, to my knowledge, been played here only once in the past thirty-three years. As for the Schoenberg piece, the number of Ann Arborites who can hum its big tune probably can be counted on one hand.
The second unknown is Rattle himself, who's making his Ann Arbor debut. EMI has just released the English conductor's recordings of Brahms' four symphonies with the German orchestra, but a day's listening has yet to leave a vivid impression. Sure, the playing is fabulous, but the conducting, while technically impeccable, seems somewhat cool. We'll see if Rattle heats up in performance.
[Originally published in November, 2009.]