Musikfest Berlin 2011: Rattle does Mahler’s 8th more from the heart than the head

GermanyGermany  Musikfest Berlin 2011 – Lotti, Tallis and Mahler: Soloists, choirs and Berlin Philharmonic, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Philharmonie, Berlin, 15.9.2011. (MC)

Erika Sunnegårdh (soprano 1)
Susan Bullock (soprano 2)
Anna Prohaska (soprano 3)
Lilli Paasikivi (mezzo-soprano 1)
Nathalie Stutzmann (mezzo-soprano 2)
Johan Botha (tenor)
David Wilson-Johnson (baritone)
John Relyea (bass)

Rundfunkchor Berlin/Simon Halsey (coach)
MDR Rundfunkchor Leipzig/Howard Arman (coach)
Knaben des Staats- und Domchors Berlin/Kai-Uwe Jirka (coach)

Antonio LottiCrucifixus in C minor (c.1718)
Thomas TallisMotet Spem in alium (c. 1570)
Gustav MahlerSymphony No. 8 E flat major Symphony of Thousand’ (1906/07)

In the year of the 100th anniversary of his death Gustav Mahler’s colossal choral Symphony No. 8 Symphony of Thousand’ was for me the pinnacle at the musikfest berlin 2011. In a burst of exalted inspiration Mahler connected the text of the medieval Whitsun hymn “Chorus mysticus” to the conclusion of Part II of Goethe’s Faust. Scored for large orchestra, eight soloists, two mixed choirs and boys choir Mahler knew he had composed something extraordinary. In a letter to Willem Mengelberg Mahler wrote, “I have just completed my Eighth – it is the greatest thing that I have ever done. And so unique in content and form that it is impossible to describe it.” This is Mahler’s pantheistic vision of life and the universe with which Sir Simon, the Berlin Philharmonic and his vast choral forces were willing protagonists to traverse this epic journey.

Any accusations of Sir Simon Rattle wallowing in the lush sound world and delving pedantically into detail were washed away with a convincing and affectionate interpretation that came more from the heart than the head. It was a fiendishly difficult assignment but Sir Simon inspired and held together these enormous forces remarkably well adopting a well-judged pace. It was remarkable the way Rattle built the thrillingly dramatic climaxes with the raw power in the opening movement sounding almost barbaric. The eight soloists blended together so splendidly it almost feels wrong to single out individual singers, but I especially enjoyed the radiant and clear toned soprano of Erika Sunnegårdh and the expressive voice of tenor Johan Botha. Stentorian toned and rock-steady bass John Relyea was outstanding in the Pater Profundus crowning his performance with the words, “O God, soothe my thoughts, enlighten my needful heart.” Also doing a fine job was mezzo-soprano Lilli Paasikivi who replaced Karen Cargill who was ill. Rattle made a tremendous impact with a performance that I experienced as quite overwhelming providing a compelling and memorable sense of occasion.

Before the Mahler we had heard unaccompanied Latin sacred music from the Renaissance and the Baroque sung directed by Rattle using the beautifully blended and secure Rundfunkchor Berlin. Venetian composer Antonio Lotti’s Crucifixus in C minor for unaccompanied eight-part choir was composed around 1718. The sound came like a choir of angels appearing from behind a soft white cotton cloud. Although short in length the score’s intensity increased to dramatic effect before serenely fading away to nothing. Known as the father of English Tudor church music Thomas Tallis wrote his famous masterwork Spem in alium for eight five-part choirs around 1570. Overflowing with fresh and varying ideas the forty impeccable voices created a deeply devotional atmosphere that bordered on the mystical.

Michael Cookson