On Tour, Berlin Philharmonic Unleashes a Beast

United StatesUnited States Boulez, Mahler: Berliner Philharmoniker / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 22.11.2016. (HS)

Boulez: Éclat

Mahler: Symphony No. 7 in E minor

Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, something of an unwieldy animal, roared and bounded, prowling the Davies Hall stage like a caged lion and showing off its sinew and flowing mane. Though that may sound overly colorful, it’s an approximation of what conductor Simon Rattle provoked from his long-time partnership with the Berliner Philharmoniker in their tour stop in San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall.

Rattle, the ensemble’s artistic director since 2002 and a regular guest conductor with the orchestra for years before that, ends his tenure there in 2018 to become music director of the London Symphony. He clearly enjoys a level of communication with the musicians that can compare with any orchestra-conductor collaboration. This Mahler performance benefited from that unity brilliantly, reflecting the composer’s intent with big strokes.

The hesitant opening measures lurched from one semi-formed thought to another, exactly what the music tries to convey. Piece by piece, these threads of marches, distant fanfares, and fragmented songs coalesced into a purposeful whole. Rattle pivoted the orchestra seamlessly, whenever the piece turned a corner from one idea to a totally different one. The first of many marches emerged organically from Mahler’s restless opening, another march later somehow spinning off from a gorgeous rendition of the lush, lyrical second theme. Long buildups led to almost-climaxes before sinking into the cortège-like mood of the opening.

Through it all, the orchestra offered a burnished sound that painted its colors in rich tones. The music found its energy from the movement of the underlying rhythms and counterpoint, as if the centre of gravity were shifting under a luxuriant forest. Rattle seemed less interested in illuminating details on the surface than in these flexings of core muscles.

That was particularly apparent in the three smaller-scale movements between the two big outer ones. The first Nachtmusik came off like a gentle evening stroll, a tranquil glade after the menacing forest of the opening movement. The central Scherzo, often described as “spectral,” made no effort to emulate the rattling of unseen bones or stirring of winds, but evoked villain’s shadow against a wall, a horror movie’s signature shot. The second Nachmusik settled into a plush reverie, the plink of a guitar and mandolin adding rustic color to the strum of a harp—effects seldom heard in a symphony but utterly magical in this quiet, soft-textured, unhurried performance.

The hell-for-leather finale drummed up one big climax after another. Clearly inspired by Wagner’s outsized Die Meistersinger, but not a copy of it, the music skates deftly between pomp and outright parody, eventually returning to a blazing reprise of the opening fanfare, this time shining brilliantly in the bright daylight of C major.

An eight-minute opener contrasted with this 80-minute behemoth. Pierre Boulez’s Éclat (1965), for 15 instruments (including a guitar and mandolin), employs mostly percussion with a small ensemble of alto flute, English horn, trumpet, trombone, viola and cello. The low-lying timbre and mostly soft dynamics give the wispy pings and dissonant harmonies a pastel color. The music seldom coalesces, but remains content to toss out fragments, as they play against each other and decay into silence.

The ensemble, led by the redoubtable flutist Emmanuel Pahud on alto flute, made a ravishing little light show from these sparkles.

Harvey Steiman

For a review of the same concert in New York click here.

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