Everything Great—and Everything Perplexing—from Rattle

20/05/2013

United StatesUnited States Webern, Berg, Ligeti, Beethoven: Barbara Hannigan (soprano), Philadelphia Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York City, 17.5.2013 (DA)

Webern: Passacaglia, Op.1
Berg: Three Fragments from Wozzeck, Op.7
Ligeti: Mysteries of the Macabre
Beethoven: Symphony No.6 in F Major, Op.68 ‘Pastoral’

It’s a decent bet that when he ends his tenure at the Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle will rely on his various and longstanding ties to just a few orchestras around the world. One that has blossomed in recent years—to the extent that he reportedly declined to become their chief nearly a decade ago—is the relationship he has with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The Philadelphians have found a new lease on life under Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and at Carnegie Hall this season they have seemed unable to give less than thrilling performances. But in this appearance Rattle was in charge: cue everything that is great and everything that is perplexing about the shock-haired Liverpudlian.

There is no doubt that Rattle is one of the most gifted programmers around. Who else would follow the Lohengrin prelude with Ligeti’s Atmosphères, or craft a super-symphony from Schoenberg’s Five Pieces, Webern’s Six, and Berg’s Three? Here the theme was more puzzling. Hopefully it wasn’t as banal as the fact that all four composers lived and worked in Vienna, or a desire to make the Second Viennese School sound more traditional and Beethoven more modern. More likely it emphasized an interest from the composers in earlier, different, perhaps simpler times and places, from the formal tradition of Webern’s Passacaglia, via Marie’s contemplation of the Bible in the Wozzeck fragments, to Ligeti’s demented excoriation of secrecy in Mysteries of the Macabre, and finally concluding with Beethoven’s longing for and transformation by the countryside. Unless there is a secret F major chord in all four any musical links would be rather stretched, although as the stage was rearranged before the Beethoven I found myself humming the opening bars and noting how inevitable they sounded.

Perhaps the theme wasnostalgia, based on how Rattle conducted the Webern, and especially the Berg. There was clarity to the Webern—for the most part garnered by superb and tasteful solo contributions from the orchestra’s principals—but not to the extent one would hear from composer-conductors like Pierre Boulez or Michael Gielen. Color seemed to be one aim, but the result was hewn in gunmetal grays and muddy browns. Another lens was certainly the Austro-Germanic greats of times past, viewed through Rattle’s sculpted, surging style. But this Passacaglia didn’t quite hang together as it does in the most confident of hands.

Berg’s debt to late Romanticism was certainly in evidence in the fragments from Wozzeck. Rattle here couldn’t resist the Philadelphia sound, slathering Berg’s diamantine textures and pinpoint precision in oodles of string sauce. Much of the inner detail that is so important to Berg—even in this cruelly brief suite—was left to fend for itself. Still, in the great interlude before the final scene Rattle conjured a shattering climax (at the intoning of ‘Wir arme Leut’) and there would be a great deal to be said for his approach in general if it were less one-sided. The highlight here, though, was the incorrigible brilliance and versatility of Barbara Hannigan. In her opening fragment one wondered whether she had quite the vocal strength for Marie, which is more often considered an almost Wagnerian role. But with such astonishing fidelity to and shaping of the text, there was more than enough to make up. Take the mix of bitterness and curious pride with which she spoke of her child in her Act I excerpt (‘Bist nu rein arm’ Hurenkind / und machst Deiner Mutter / doch so viel Freud’…’), or the horrid, mechanical inevitability with which she delivered her child’s lines for him (‘Hopp, hopp! Hopp, hopp!).

Hannigan and Rattle have made Mysteries of the Macabre their own in recent years, and this was the second time in four years that they have performed it in New York. (Bruce Hodges captured their sparkling wit in his earlier review.) I honestly can’t remember having had so much fun in a concert hall in quite some time. Mysteries is an aria sung by Gepopo, Brueghelland’s Chief of the Secret Political Police, a part ironically (and impossibly) scored for a coloratura soprano spraying gibberish all over the place. The nonsense is intentional, hilarious, and making an overtly anti-totalitarian (even anti-political) point, but it is gorgeously and meticulously crafted music too. Ligeti unnervingly treats the soprano voice as an instrument, and Hannigan is beyond capable of this music’s extraordinary demands. Hannigan and Rattle always play up the humor, as here did the Philadelphia’s players, many of them tearing up copies of the New York Times as part of their roles. (The ‘Arts’ pages, I wonder?) Hannigan – in a curt patent black leather cocoon, strap-up thigh-length boots, and ginormous heels – edged in from the wings, dispensing with her Gestapo trenchcoat in the body of the aria. The antics were farcically riotous, with Hannigan taking over the conducting duties at one point—and doing it rather well—before Rattle kicked her off the podium, literally. Rattle himself neatly made a political point in his written-in breakdown, screaming ‘No, no, no! I demand a filibuster!’ As Rattle picked up the coat, the standing ovation was long, and beyond deserved.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, sadly, in a Beethoven Sixth marred by this conductor’s worst traits. Rattle’s great talent is for micro-management of the sound that emanates from his orchestras. It makes him a fine conductor of contemporary music, of Haydn, and of Debussy, Ravel, Fauré, Schoenberg, and Strauss. But in Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Bruckner—basically everything the head of the Berliner Philharmoniker is supposed to conduct well—that talent lets him down. So it was here, although micro-management didn’t extent to making the orchestra’s strings play in time. Tempo changes seemed arbitrary, dynamics so finely graded as to have all the life sucked out of them. There were some curiously shoddy moments in the first movement, and the final movement’s climax was a mess.

In terms of color and detail, Beethoven’s views of the countryside were perfectly pleasant, but that isn’t what this symphony is about. Rather, it’s a spiritual experience, one of transfiguration and release through a religious experience of nature and nature’s God. Unlike Daniel Barenboim’s performance with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in this hall earlier in the year, in which all notion of the picturesque was ruthlessly left aside in pursuit of the work’s formal drive, the architecture simply wasn’t there in Rattle’s interpretation, and nor was the crucial sense of permanent transition. This countryside was hermetically sealed, and journeying through it musically was like trying to metamorphose in a bonsai garden kept on a filing cabinet. At least Rattle didn’t force the orchestra into an historically-informed straitjacket, as on his recording of the complete symphonies with the Wiener Philharmoniker. Small mercies indeed.

David Allen

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