The Asia Tour review – impressive Berlin Phil showcase as Rattle's reign nears end

Cho/Wang/Berliner Philharmoniker/Rattle
(Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings, five SACDs and Blu-ray)
An astonishingly vivid Petrushka is the highlight of a thoroughly documented final Asian tour

In November last year, Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic gave a series of concerts in Hong Kong, China, South Korea and Japan. It was the last tour of Asia that Rattle would undertake as the orchestra’s chief conductor, and their performances are thoroughly documented on these discs. Four of the five audio CDs are derived from the final pair of concerts, which were given in Tokyo’s magnificent Suntory Hall, while the other, a performance of Ravel’s G Major Piano Concerto with the winner of the 2015 Warsaw Chopin competition Seong-Jin Cho as soloist, was recorded in the Berlin Philharmonie before the tour began. The Blu-ray disc contains videos of the same seven works, taken from the concerts given by Rattle and his orchestra in Hong Kong, Wuhan and Seoul.

The recordings are astonishingly vivid, and the whole set provides a very impressive showcase of the Berlin Phil’s current condition as it nears the end of Rattle’s reign. The highlight is definitely the high-voltage performance of Stravinsky’s Petrushka, taken at quite a lick, but crammed with telling detail and sharply characterised solo playing, while at the other extreme is a distinctly uninvolving account of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, equally well played but over-moulded, as so many of Rattle’s performances of late Romantic symphonies tend to be nowadays. There’s a typically energised account of Strauss’s tone poem Don Juan, and a dazzlingly fleet but rather lightweight one of Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto, with Yuja Wang as the soloist. But Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony is, I think, new to the Rattle discography (though he did record the Second in the 1980s, with the LA Philharmonic). It’s a dark, sometimes rather sluggish reading, though the textures are sumptuous. A new work was commissioned for the tour, too. Chorós Chordón, by the Seoul-born, Berlin resident Unsuk Chin, is a dense web of melodic tendrils, led by the strings, which vanishes into thin air as abruptly as it begins.

Claudio Abbado with the Berlin Philharmonic
Claudio Abbado with the Berlin Philharmonic Photograph: Handout

The set is presented in what has become the familiarly lavish way of Berliner Philharmoniker recordings, complete with a handsomely illustrated hardback book. But it may perhaps be repackaged more affordably in a couple of years’ time, like the orchestra’s recent reissues of both Rattle’s rather disappointing Sibelius symphony cycle from 2015, and the recording of Claudio Abbado’s last concert with his former orchestra – Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique – which appeared the following year. The best of it, the superb Stravinsky, is certainly worth hearing.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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