Berlin Philharmonic, Rattle, Boulez & Mahler

Tonight was the first of two concerts by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra presented at Roy Thomson Hall. I think this is the closest I’ve seen to “full” in the space, as every seat appeared to be occupied, and no wonder.

  • This is the orchestra reputed as one of if not the greatest in the world.
  • This is the program –Mahler’s 7th Symphony + a short work by Boulez, not tomorrow’s oxymoronic program of modernists + Brahms—that surely is the crowd-pleaser.

And we were pleased.

It might be fun to compare notes with some in the audience, if I were a bit pushier and were to walk up to strangers and ask them probing questions. But I swear the nerd quotient was high tonight, even if there were a few people who applauded between movements, which can be forgiven especially when the movements are so moving.
But there are two things I’d bring up with the nerds (mes semblables mes freres, sans doute).

We’d talk about 1-the orchestra and 2-this symphony as touchstones.

2001Long ago when we were too young to be subscribers to the Toronto Symphony, there were other outlets. In 1968 I first fell under the sway of the Berlin Philharmonic with the help of Stanley Kubrick’s curated soundtrack for 2001: A Space Odyssey. The BPO played both the main title –that seminal opening of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra imitated so often since—and some of the most haunting music in the first hour, in the re-purposing of Johann Strauss’s An der schönen blauen Donau, aka The Blue Danube Waltz, as an orbital dance between a shuttle and a space station. MGM’s soundtrack album was a best-seller. There was also the von Karajan Ring cycle that came out a little later, played by the Berlin Philharmonic. The BPO was the orchestra you used when you went to a stereo shop looking for music to test just how hi your fi truly was.

And then the nerds might also weigh in on Mahler’s 7th Symphony. I remember one conversation after a TSO Mahler 7th decades ago when a prominent Toronto expert who i won’t embarrass by naming in this space (then much younger of course) opined that maybe Mahler’s 7th doesn’t really work; given that he must have been in the hall tonight, I wonder if he’d now recant that bold statement of his youth. This is a big unwieldy composition that can be taken slow or fast or maybe a bit of both. In my youth I was partial to Klemperer, who is the slowest of the slow, and also enjoyed conductors such as Bruno Walter and James Levine. When I encountered conductors who make Mahler move more quickly –thinking especially of Leonard Bernstein, who has been my favourite– I was converted from Klempererism not just because he shares my initials.

Which brings us to tonight’s program, the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, as he comes to the end of his mandate to lead this unique orchestra. Mandate? Yes because this orchestra elects its leader, so the odd word fits.

The program consisted of two works:

  • Eclat by Pierre Boulez
  • Mahler’s 7th Symphony

The first piece was about eight minutes long while the second usually runs about 80 minutes. This was a magical pairing in several ways. Eclat served as a wonderful curtain-raiser, an overture that is much more –and less—than an actual overture.
We had the benefit of contrast:

  • Where the Mahler is long, the Boulez is short
  • Where the Mahler employs a huge orchestra and every section of the orchestra, the Boulez is more of a chamber work
  • Where the Mahler is like a blanket of sound, from loud to soft but full of varied textures and colours, the Boulez is more of a sampler, a series of hors d’oeuvres to offer only a brief glimpse of the sound of that instrument, taking us through the sounds of fifteen instruments
  • Where the Mahler is often passionately emotional, whether soothing, mysterious or triumphant, the Boulez is much more reticent and mysterious, and teases the ear to want more (which we certainly got when the Mahler began shortly thereafter)

Majella Stockhausen

The Boulez features a wonderful solo piano part, played tonight by Majella Stockhausen, the daughter of the famous composer. Some of the passages she played are ferociously complex, and sound quite difficult to execute. As far as I could tell she did a brilliant job. The essence of Eclat is that it is a fragmentary work (among several meanings “Eclat” can mean ‘splinter’ or ‘fragment’), with jagged bits of sound that sometimes sustain or fade, depending on the way the instrument is made (this is one of the composition’s subtexts).

And shortly after, we were into the first movement of the Mahler. Listening to this big ensemble play a composition calling for a big sound from every section is a fabulous demonstration of the excellence of both the orchestra and the hall. Rattle took an approach that showed us just how well this orchestra can follow. The lush melodic parts were sometimes achingly slow, while the marching motifs were taken faster than I’ve ever heard them, even faster than either of the Bernstein recordings I’ve heard: yet the ensemble followed him like a shadow, even when he made an abrupt or even a quirky tempo change. One of the most impressive moments in that first movement came at one of the big climaxes of the marching motif, where Rattle simply stood and watched the orchestra execute the phrases perfectly without any help from the conductor’s baton.
All night we were not just treated to Mahler, but a showcase of every instrumental colour. The second movement was all about inner voices, solos from everyone, from the timpanist through wind players onstage and off. The pastoral delights of this movement hypnotized an audience already enraptured by the powerful conclusion of that first movement. In this movement we experienced more of a dynamic range, in some understated and delicate playing alongside some big moments.

For the third, I was intrigued by what I think I saw Rattle doing, a conductor who challenges the orchestra with adventurous repertoire, resisting the challenge to force the piece to cohere, and instead letting it be messy and noisy, in a bit of an echo of the opening work. The fragmentary and noisy element was front & centre, and only towards the end of the movement did he suddenly turn up the schmaltz. But in the process he made Mahler seem very modern indeed and a fitting showcase for this orchestra.


Sir Simon Rattle (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

For the fourth movement we were beguiled by a series of solos, as Mahler wears his heart on his sleeve. The concert-master is given wonderful opportunities, as well as smaller moments for the cello and the French horn. And then came the pure gratification of the final movement rondo, an array of contrasts & different tempi & moods. While Rattle showed us that his orchestra can follow him at any tempo, I wonder, were there perhaps too many abrupt changes of tempo, too much of Rattle showing off and not enough attention to pulling this big oversized piece together? That’s what suddenly reminded me of that commentary from decades ago, the fellow doubting the symphony can work. But I’ve heard the symphony cohere before, so long as the conductor tries to keep the tempo a bit more consistent. So I was certainly impressed by what the orchestra could do and Rattle’s command, even if that last movement was not to my taste. Even so the audience went nuts at the end, and I bravo’d at least a dozen times.

Wednesday night November 16, Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic will be back at Roy Thomson Hall in a program of Schönberg, Berg, Webern and Brahms.

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