Welcome Distractions from Rattle and Berlin on Tour

United StatesUnited States Boulez, Mahler, Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Brahms: Berlin Philharmonic / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Carnegie Hall. New York City. 9.11 & 10.11.2016. (BH)

9 November
Boulez – Éclat (1965)
Mahler – Symphony No.7 in E Minor (1904-1905)

10 November
Schoenberg – Five Pieces for Orchestra Op.16 (1909)
Webern – Six Pieces for Orchestra Op.6b (1909; rev. 1928)
Berg – Three Pieces for Orchestra Op.6 (1914-1915; rev. 1929)
Brahms – Symphony No.2 in D major Op.73 (1877)

There’s no getting around the fact that this review was begun during an unusual week. The day after arguably the most wrenching and contentious election in United States history, the Berlin Philharmonic came to Carnegie Hall for two concerts, the dates no doubt booked years in advance. It is to the orchestra’s immense credit—and that of conductor Sir Simon Rattle—that the two evenings were as fulfilling as they were, considering that many in the audience, including this writer, found it difficult to focus.

In a canny programming move, Sir Simon prefaced Mahler’s Seventh Symphony with Pierre Boulez’s Éclat, a skeletal piece from 1965, requiring only 15 players. Two of those instruments are guitar and mandolin—Matthew Hunter and Detlef Tewes, respectively—which coincidentally appear in the Mahler and made a crystalline introduction. Throughout, the conductor emphasized clarity and sparkle, with the musicians delicately proffering tiny bits of sound.

After a brief pause for the remaining musicians to file onstage, Rattle launched Mahler’s extravagantly constructed maelstrom with well-judged phrasing and some delicious horn work. The Seventh in some respects is the most prototypical of the composer’s symphonies, in its gargantuan orchestration, its abrupt tempo and key changes, and expert control of disparate parts that eventually coalesce. The Berlin players’ adeptness and ferocity, navigating Mahler’s vivid stream-of-consciousness, were wondrous. 

Starting slower than some, Rattle emphasized the sense of surprise: with little warning, diaphanous intimacy collided with violent climaxes. In the second movement, the horns and winds’ composure, coupled with moderate tempos, evoked skipping through a meadow on a sunny day. Chamber music moments were everywhere, and the oboe and trumpet were especially magical.

The lurching central Scherzo was dispatched with demonic motion, a flurry of rattling skeletons, and the second Nachtmusik was infused with the orchestra’s creamy oboe timbre. In the bracing final Rondo, Rattle encouraged the ensemble to plunge headlong into the composer’s manic energy, with broad swaths of strings and crisp brass chorales, all converging in the breathless final pages.

But the second concert may have topped the first one, both for programming acumen and the sheer quality of the musicianship. In prefatory remarks, Sir Simon described his vision: a through-performed reading of three second-Viennese School classics, back-to-back, with only brief pauses between them, inviting the audience to hear them as a sort of very late, 14-movement Mahler symphony.

Given the performance, it was hard to argue with Rattle’s concept, explored under the best possible circumstances. The florid colors of Schoenberg’s Five Pieces slithered like reptiles, especially the barely controlled menace of the central movement, “Farben,” when time slowed to a crawl, leading into “Peripatie” that felt like a puff of air. Webern’s celebrated funeral march in his Six Pieces was delivered with cold brutality. But then came Berg’s rhapsodic Three Pieces, showing the ensemble at its most incandescent. The second movement waltz seemed to outdo Ravel in its disturbing territory, and in the finale, rarely have the flecks of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony been as audible—and as energizing.

As if the first half weren’t provocative enough, then came Rattle’s supremely lucid, ingratiating Brahms Second Symphony. The conductor kept his ear on the first-movement peaks, finding the sweet spot of each paragraph, with clear flute and clarinet comments front-and-center. The closing chord was as perfectly voiced as anyone could want.

In the Adagio non troppo, principal horn Stefan Dohr led the section through some of the night’s most haunting moments, as the strings dug in with abandon, yet never at the expense of unanimity. The oboes took the prize in the third movement—Jonathan Kelly and Albrecht Mayer, principals—with beguiling tone in soothing contrast to the strings, the latter pouring out complex layers that were never monolithic.

Rattle let the delicate opening tendrils of the finale unfold with disarming ease, with an extraordinary ultra-pianissimo, which only enhanced the arrival of the massive forces that followed. Given the momentum, rhythmic precision, and joyous expertise on display, it is unlikely a Brahms Second this fulfilling will come along any time soon.

Bruce Hodges

Harvey Steiman reviewed the Boulez/Mahler concert in San Francisco here.

Leave a Comment