fri 05/06/2020

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Rattle, Royal Festival Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Rattle, Royal Festival Hall

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Rattle, Royal Festival Hall

Dream team so near to heaven in Mahler's Third Symphony - until the end

So the Berlin Phiharmonic’s high-profile five-day residency staked its ultimate curtain-calls on one of the most spiritual adagio-finales in the symphonic repertoire (most of the others, like this one to the Third Symphony, are by Mahler). We knew the masterful Sir Simon's micromanagement and the Berlin beauty of tone would look to the first five movements of the Third's world-embracing epic. But would the sixth flame, as it must, with pulsing inner light and strength of long-term line?

Let me leave that burning question until last, just as it somewhat suspensefully hung fire in this third of the team's full-orchestral London concerts. There certainly was a great slow-movement interpretation, right at the heart of the symphony, and I doubt if any of us have ever heard it sound quite like this. The midnight song of Nietzsche's Zarathustra comes as a big, human question after the barely contained revels of rowdy Bacchic marchers, delicate plants and mutable animals. Its unearthly stillness came not just in the fleck of harp and the sliver of muted cellos and basses but also as channelled through the oracular tones, soon warmed, of magnificent contralto Nathalie Stutzmann.

concert_10_20080407_Nathalie_Stutzmann_01Why do we see and hear so little of this truly great and utterly individual voice (Stutzmann pictured right)? She was peerless; and I doubt if even the keen musicologists debating the meaning of the oboe's and cor anglais's "upward tugging" birdcry in the night (see the comments on the review of Donald Runnicles's Proms performance) would have found anything to fault in the delivery of the equally fine Albrecht Meyer and Dominik Wollenweber.

Zooming outwards into generalities, this interpretation would surely win a gold medal among all-time live performances for its sheer unflagging fidelity to Mahler's punishingly detailed dynamics (wasn't it Bernstein who said a conductor had a lifetime's work cut out just reproducing them as they appear in the score?) Nothing escaped Rattle and his players in the first movement, which meant there was a whole new dimension to the raggle-taggle marchers who sneak in on brute nature's heels - all of this luminously lit behind the tonal equivalent of the magic scrim you get in productions of The Sleeping Beauty - and a justifiable leisure behind a brief central idyll, for me the most moving moment of the evening.

It was perhaps correct to have the trombone's marbled rites of Pan so brutally, if incisively, projected - I have a softer spot for the more nuanced artistry achieved by the BBC Symphony Orchestra's Helen Vollam at the start of their Mahler cycle - and all the dewy beauty of clarinet playing we heard in Monday's ineffable performance of the Fourth Symphony came back to lend a touch of bitter-sweetness to the scherzo. And that was well before Tamás Velenczei's flawless, time-suspending posthorn-in-the-woods (how did they get that resonance anywhere in the Festival Hall?) In between, the flower-minuet was just that, fleet and gracious for once.

What of the women and boys of the matutinal bellsong that follows the midnight imprecations? Peerless also, like Stutzmann. And there was a good throwback here to the core BBC Singers' brightness in the exquisite Brahms partsong at the start of the concert, Es tönt ein voller Harfenklang. The horn as another nature-voice was raptly handled by the orchestra's wonderful Stefan Dohr, with its harpist, Marie-Pierre Langlamet underlining the magic. Wolf's setting of Shakespeare's "Ye spotted snakes" was apt, too: one of the many confusing possible programmes Mahler hinted at for his symphony was "a midsummer morning's dream".

Yes, it was incandescent; yes, it moved magisterially from assured hymn to bleeding heart and back. So what was missing?

And dream it remained as violins sounded the first truly grown-up wisdom of the symphony on their rich G string at the start of the finale (no crucifying break after the bellsong of the kind which so disfigured Vladimir Jurowski's far more mixed-bag interpretation at the beginning of the season). Yes, it was incandescent; yes, it moved magisterially from assured hymn to bleeding heart and back. So what was missing? For me, that sense of ease and natural long line which sees the whole; here, just as I felt we were getting there and the deeper emotions stirred, Rattle would essay some over-commanding gesture to underline the beauty. For heaven's sake, I can hear the angry folk who rose to their feet at the end shouting, what do you want? In short, the contrast of unceasing inner tension and forward movement with outward calm in this all-too-brief two minute clip from the Lucerne Festival.

So that's Abbado, and it wouldn't do for all interpreters to sound alike. In any case there are wonders Rattle brought to earlier movements which I haven't heard before from anyone. But I do know I've been much more engaged for the last 25 minutes or so in what I can only describe as a fully aware transcendental meditation with Abbado, with Jiří Bělohlávek (the BBC's Mahler cycle master) and even, in the renewed reading of his middle years, with Esa-Pekka Salonen. I'm not moaning about the Berlin trumpet who had an all-too-forgiveable problem just when it mattered most, at the pearly gates - that was quickly forgotten as the sound went on to generate further radiance - but I am saying that I got up from my seat and moved quickly to the side of the hall, coolly wanting more. Yet made sure to stay on as a bit of an outsider to cheer all those superlative Berlin soloists to the rafters.


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Rattle's micro-management does seem to kill the emotional high that Mahler 3 should bring. Everything was perfectly played (apart from a mess with the trumpets in the adagio) but it was cold and clinical for me. I feel the same disappointment with the recently issued CD of Mahler 2 I got much more enjoyment from Runnicles and the BBC Scottish SO at the Proms and even more so from Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra in Symphony Hall, Birmingham in October 2008.

I've always found difficulty convincing myself that Mahler 3 is coherent and not over-long. No more - that performance from SSR and his merry mensch tonight has transformed the piece from an ugly duckling to a swan to these ears. Maybe not as startling a rendition as the first 2 movements of Mahler 4 at the Barbican - but the same kind of 'nachtmusic' feel in the 3rd movement that I've never experienced before. Yes - we heard the trumpet fluff but my over-riding impression was of an engrossing 'whole' performance of a piece I've always been a little lukewarm towards. I tend to feel the same about the 7th and 8th as well, maybe I just need to hear a similarly great performance of those to be won over. The standing ovation in the hall seemed genuine enough to me based on what people had just heard, rather than just because of who the performers were. If they have plans to record then I for one would buy without hesitation, even though I already have many versions on the shelf. The glissandi though? Wasn't expecting them but they didn't sound 'wrong' on the night.

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