Berliner Philharmoniker/Rattle - Philharmonie Berlin, 26 September 2008
Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic were performing the same double bill
for three nights in a row (beneath a mic-draped ceiling, suggesting a recording is in the offing). It made for a short evening - 30 minutes one end, 45 the other - but like one of those incredibly dense, incredibly rich chocolate cakes, a little went a long way.
Ma Mère l’oye balanced complexity with weightlessness. Only the surprise volume of the sudden fortissimo a few bars from the end made me realise how quietly the rest had been played, and how subtly Rattle had delineated the crisp changes of texture. Like a series of dressage manoeuvres, it's partly a showcase for solo skills, and all were faultlessly handled.
I recall Simon Rattle, as he left England to take up the Berlin job, criticising modern British artists for being 'biographical'. Well, no composer could be less biographical than Ravel, so perhaps it was predictable that Rattle seemed in his element. He didn't search dig or embellish, simply presented it in crystal clear focus. A masterpiece of charm, taste and workmanship.
L’Enfant et les sortilèges is a difficult one. It doesn't get many fully-staged outings on account of its odd length and the physical demands of its fantasy storyline. In some ways it's more like a cartoon script than a theatrical text. But the same demands would make a totally straight concert performance confusing and inadequate. The choice here, a concert performance with indicative costume and movement, seemed a reasonable compromise, and the singers had enormous fun with it.
Magdalena Kožená made a wonderfully brattish, exasperating Child, even if the Pudelkopf did her no favours. The other singers threw themselves into their multiple roles with great gusto, tiptoeing round Simon Rattle's podium for a bit of physical interaction where required. The miaow duet of Sophie Koch and François Le Roux was the go-for-broke highlight, but the flowing coloratura of Annick Massis as Princess and Nightingale, and Nathalie Stutzmann's carefully variegated Mother, Teacup and Dragonfly enriched the mix too.
Rattle kept the orchestra unassertive, but there was no loss of intensity or commitment, and it was clear they were thoroughly enjoying themselves.