The Last Act of the Berliner Philharmoniker’s London Residence Promises More Than It Delivers

Lachenmann and Mahler: Kate Royal (soprano), Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano), London Symphony Chorus, CBSO Chorus (chorus director: Simon Halsey), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 15.2.2015 (MB)

BPhil & Simon Rattle, Mahler 2, RFH, Kate Royal, Magdalena Kozena, CBSO Chorus, LSO Chorus 3 C Monika Rittershaus-500
BPhil & Simon Rattle, Mahler 2, RFH, Kate Royal, Magdalena Kozena, CBSO Chorus, LSO Chorus (c)Monika Rittershaus-500

Lachenmann – Tableau
Mahler – Symphony no.2 in C minor, ‘Resurrection’

The British Press – well, a section thereof – has gone into overdrive concerning the visit of Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic to London, not least on account of Rattle’s recent sixtieth birthday and his knowing, hugely welcome contribution to the all-too-nascent debate over a new concert hall for London. The coverage neither disturbs nor especially interests me; for me, there are many more interesting cultural events than a cycle of Sibelius symphonies, but, by the same token, it is not an entirely unpleasant change to see mention of Helmut Lachenmann in place of Harriet Harman, her ‘pink bus’, and other such high political trivia. Yes, of course journalistic quality has been at best mixed. A piece in The Observer has its author, pretending to knowledge of Berlin, place Daniel Barenboim at the helm of the Deutsche Oper, call Rattle’s first wife ‘Elaine’, and bizarrely claim that Rattle recorded Sibelius’s ‘symphonies … in Birmingham to a level no one has since achieved.’ Moreover, I initially wondered whether this piece in the Daily Telegraph were an inept attempt at parody, so numerous were its solecisms, so risibly unsubtle its laboured attempts at name-dropping. What else would we expect from our newspapers, post- or, to all intents and purposes, pre-Leveson? However, for those of us who care about music rather than inaccurate tittle-tattle, our principal concern should remain the state of Furtwängler’s old orchestra under its outgoing – if not for a while – artistic director, something that has received little attention beyond wearisome hagiography.

The good, indeed very good news first: Rattle’s commitment to new music remains distinguished, likewise his commitment to interesting, meaningful programming. The more one hears Lachenmann’s music in conjunction with that of the great Austro-German tradition, the more he appears not just as its undertaker, not even just as its eulogist, but also as one of its ablest custodians. No more than his sometime æsthetic antagonist, Hans Werner Henze, can he break entirely free of that tradition; nor, one increasingly suspects, does he wish to. Rattle has previously paired the 1988 Tableau with Kurtág’s Grabstein für Stephan and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; here, we seemed to go beyond Lachenmann’s celebrated affinity with Strauss’s Alpine Symphony to a pairing with Mahler’s Second Symphony which, as a prospect, offered new vistas that were metaphysical as well as physical. That said, my (perhaps fanciful) identification of certain phrases with those in Strauss’s giant tone-poem persisted in this excellent performance from Rattle and his Berlin forces. Hans Zender’s Saarbrücken recording may sound more sharply focused at times, or that may have been a matter of recording versus the Royal Festival Hall’s acoustic, but there was no doubting the ‘sense’ of the piece conveyed.. Post-Messiaen(ic) percussion thrilled. Stillness and resonance – not least Lachenmann’s extraordinary sustained notes – thrillingly accomplished the work of a born dialectician and musical dramatist, the work’s continuities as revelatory as twinkling-of-an-eye shifts of perspective. The large orchestra – not as large as Mahler’s or Strauss’s, but even so – showed Rattle not as someone who miraculously brought new music to Berlin; we hear such nonsense too much, as if Abbado, Karajan, Furtwängler, et al., had not done a great deal in that respect. (It was, of course, the latter who conducted the first performance of Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra with this very ensemble.) But it showed him at his best, as a curator, to use the fashionable modern term, of orchestral and compositional traditions that would die, were they not constantly reinvigorated.

If the pairing promised much, the performance of the Mahler symphony, long a Rattle ‘signature work’, alas only rarely delivered. Perhaps that long familiarity was part of the problem; Rattle nowadays often seems determined to highlight, to pull around, even to distort, as if he has grown tired of letting works at least appear to speak for themselves, for art to conceal art. The temptation to ‘do things’ must be all the greater with an orchestra such as the Berlin Philharmonic. That said, much of the first movement proceeded well enough, without both the (acoustical?) pin-point precision of a 2010 performance I heard in Berlin’s Philharmonie, but also without the more extreme distortions – at least until the close, when, sadly, any sense of formal unity was casually thrown away. It seemed less a dialectical strategy than a hint, or more, of ennui. Rubato and other tempo fluctuations veered, here and in subsequent movements, between the all-too-predictable – holding back the end of a phrase, then pushing forward – to the unfathomable (‘because he and they can’?) The Ländler’s charms were likewise soon dissipated by persistent lingering. That, despite some unearthly beauty in the woodwind solos. The strings, disturbingly, had a tendency to sound unduly generic, to an extent that even previous performances had not revealed. (Again, maybe the acoustic was partly the villain, but I doubt that it can have been entirely responsible.) The scherzo emerged more listless than sardonic, puzzling distended pauses suggesting little more than perplexity – though whose: the fishes’, St Anthony’s, or ours?

Urlicht, however, marked for me the low point. Magdalena Kožená is an artist I have often greatly admired, and I am sure I shall do so again, but her self-consciously ‘operatic’, even blowsy, delivery seemed entirely out of place with Mahler’s (admittedly artful) simplicity. Rattle’s direction of the orchestra seemed determined to divest Mahler’s score of its magic, again of its wonder. Kožená, meanwhile, emoted and wildly exaggerated her consonants. Perhaps that, though, was at Rattle’s insistence, since, in the final movement, I noted similar exaggeration from the chorus, which, despite Rattle’s pedantic, note-by-note direction, otherwise sang very well indeed. Such insistence, if indeed insistence it were, had clearly not extended to Kate Royal’s contribution, much of which may as well have been in Swahili. There were, of course, moments during the finale when the orchestra sounded as impressive, or almost as impressive, as it should, although even then, there was a tendency to sound as if Rattle were turning up the audio volume. But all in all, the sound, whatever its volume (and again, the acoustic almost certainly did not help), rarely sounded grounded; where was the harmonic sense, either of the moment or in the movement’s – and the symphony’s – great span? Daniel Harding’s recent Proms performance had been preferable in almost every way: ideas of its (his) own, yet coming together as a whole that was far more than the sum of its parts. For me, though clearly not for the greater part of the audience, this was a disappointing performance, which edged frighteningly close, and not in a good way, toward incoherence.

Mark Berry

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