The Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle Triumph at the Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 64 – Boulez, Mahler: Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle. Royal Albert Hall, London, 2.9.2016. (CC)

Prom 64_CR_BBC Chris Christodoulou_3
Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker (c) Chris Christodoulou

BoulezÉclat (1965)

Mahler- Symphony No. 7

How one translates the word Éclat is an interesting question (lustre, momentariness perhaps). A gift from the composer Pierre to the conductor Pierre, as Rattle puts it in his pre-Radio 3 interview, and heard here shorn of the /Multiples, the short, ten-minute piece plays with the concept of “smooth” time (reflecting in mood, with sounds resonating on), and “striated time”, passages dominated by pulse. Boulez’s scoring intriguingly contains harp, vibraphone, tubular bells, celesta, glockenspiel, cimbalom, guitar and mandolin (“struck” instruments in one way or another), viola and cellos (all bowed) and alto flute, cor anglais, trumpet in C and trombone (all blown) in addition to the piano, that chameleon of the instrumental world. The piano is accorded a major part in the argument, and it was a delightful surprise to see the pianist named as Majella Stockhausen, daughter of the great Karlheinz. The sheer confidence of the piano’s early gesture spoke of Majella Stockhausen’s saturation in music of this ilk; the Berlin performers, too, seemed completely at home. No two performances of this piece will be identical thanks to Boulez’s compositional techniques, and this one surely constitutes one of the most cherishable accounts. Despite the space of the Albert Hall, pianissimi were perfectly realised. The sheer joy in the beauty of sound was remarkable; so was the assurance of the performance as a whole. As a tribute to the great man, Boulez, it was concise but perfect, a description one might justifiably apply to Boulez’s music itself.

This was the first performance of Éclat at the Proms in this form for half a century (predictably the previous outing was under the composer himself). One does hope it will not be another 50 years before we hear it again.

Talking about Mahler’s Seventh, which shares with the Boulez piece a highlighting of the sounds of the guitar and mandolin, Rattle refers to ‘phantasmagoria of death, and nightmare, and ghosts’. Placing his strings with antiphonal violins for greatest clarity, Rattle proceeded to deliver a performance of the utmost electricity combined with a miraculous knowledge of the Mahlerian soundworld (as far as I could see, he was conducting from memory). The deep resonant opening, its rhythm inspired by the stroke of the oars as Mahler rowed across the lake at Krumpendorf and the plaintive, perfectly rendered tenor horn solo – strangely, the instrumentalist was not listed in the booklet – set the scene for a performance that showed the close link between orchestra and conductor. That solo is marked grosser Ton! by Mahler, with his characteristic exclamation mark, and here it was bold and forthright. Throughout this movement, in fact the entire symphony, rubato and tempo changes both sudden and gradual, were as if from a single mega-instrument. Mahler writes large intervals in the string melodies, all perfectly judged. The whole first movement was beautifully poised and balanced, nowhere more so than in the Alpine interlude. But it was the extreme plasticity of the lines, possible only when orchestra and conductor resonate on such a deep level, that took this straight to the heart of Mahler; that and the textural clarity that Rattle has so carefully fostered over in Berlin.

Two Nachtmusik movements surround a Schattenhaft (shadowy) Scherzo. The first Nachtmusik (older readers will know it from an advertisement for Castrol GTX motor oil) begins with horn calls, those of the first horn Stefan Dohr perfectly done; just one slip from the third horn riposte, notable mainly for its place in reminding that the Berlin players are, after all, human (although the excellence of some of the horn ensemble writing later in this movement implied more super-human aspects). Under Rattle’s baton, one really felt the progressive nature of Mahler’s writing, from the two magical oboes and the spare instrumentation through to gorgeous, bucolic gestures.

The Scherzo, marked ‘shadowy’, begins as a pianissimo skeleton, characterised here by simply stunning ensemble. Yet it was the Ivesian marching band that really raised the eyebrows – perfectly judged, it seemed ideally placed in the prevailing phantasmagoria.

If there was a criticism of the performance as a whole, it was the rather anonymous (and too quiet, from my seat) solo violin contributions of first concert-master Noah Bendix-Balgley. And it is a violin solo that initiates the second Nachtmusik, perhaps not the best beginning – when the same passage returned later, played by the full section, one appreciated its true meaning; but the horn responses at the opening from principal horn Dohr were supreme in their command of both instrument and idiom, particularly the way his top A (for the horn, sounding D) melded into the woodwind passage that followed, a masterstroke of chamber play within the vast edifice that is the Seventh Symphony.

The finale is the most notorious movement, from the perspective of both conductor and audience. Rattle brought a Schoenbergian sense of Expressionism to the opening, before the bright fanfares are unleashed; and, when they came, what fanfares they were, a reminder to all of the brilliance of the Berlin brass, surely a world-leader. Rattle kept the pace moving, revelling in Mahler’s quirky writing and bold, sometimes brutal juxtapositions. The greatest achievement here was Rattle’s maintenance of the brass-drenched energy throughout this final, extended canvas. Rattle has lived with and championed this symphony for decades (his 1991 CBSO live recording is well known to collectors, and in fact he conducted the Birmingham orchestra in this work here at he Proms in 1989). These, his most recent thoughts on the score, confirms his status as a supreme interpreter.

Remarkable performances of the highest calibre, then, and programming that at once paid tribute to the genius of Boulez while stimulating the listener in the most positive way possible. The Berliner Philharmoniker’s visits are always events – this one was pure triumph, to boot.

Colin Clarke

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