Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Rewarding Juxtaposition of Contemporary Music with Mahler

GermanyGermany Rihm, Ligeti, and Mahler: Camilla Tilling (soprano), Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 12.2.2017. (MB)

RihmGruß-Moment 2 – in memoriam Pierre Boulez

Ligeti – Violin Concerto

Mahler – Symphony no.4 in G major

It had been two years, almost to the day, since I had last heard the Berlin Philharmonic (in the flesh, anyway). Then it had been Mahler (with Lachenmann) in London; now it was Mahler (with Rihm and Ligeti) in Berlin. The (more or less) contemporary works fared splendidly on both occasions; Mahler, I think, fared much better this time, the interventionism that has latterly characterised Simon Rattle’s work with that composer less distracting, more convincing. The orchestra, of course, remains a great one, now as fearless in new music as its fabled earlier self was in Beethoven and Brahms.

Wolfgang Rihm’s Gruß-Moment 2 was not quite receiving its premiere: that had taken place on the first of these three performances. It is nevertheless emphatically a new work, albeit performed with a confidence that might suggest otherwise. Rihm’s piece – allegedly five minutes long, but significantly longer – is one of twelve commissioned by the Stiftung Berliner Philharmoniker from different composers, apparently given carte blanche as to how they approached their ‘album leaf’ compositions. It also follows Gruß-Moment 1, written for the Lucerne Festival, for Pierre Boulez’s ninetieth birthday in 2015; now, of course, we live in the shadow of Boulez’s death, and the piece is dedicated to his memory.

Rihm has written for what looks like an average-sized orchestra: neither Bach’s, nor Gurrelieder’s. There are interesting omissions, though: clarinets, bassoons (not contra-bassoon, however), and trumpets. On the other hand, there are four players apiece for flutes, horns, and percussion. It is with an English horn solo that the lament or tombeau begins, perhaps inevitably putting us in mind of Tristan und Isolde. (Whether I liked it or not, I could not help but find intervallic and rhythmic correspondences and differences with Wagner’s Shepherd Song.) Four horns follow on: as so often with Rihm, forging further links with German Romanticism, albeit more obliquely here than sometimes. Was that even a hint of Bruckner in the string unison lines to come? Oboe and trombone duetting, still more English horn and trombone duetting, put me a little in mind of Stockhausen’s Mittwoch, but that was probably just me; for one can play the game of correspondences all one likes, of course, and it is in many ways just a way of finding one’s bearing. It was only really with the sounding of the quartet of flutes and percussion together that my ears found something that might possibly remind me of Boulez, and then not overtly. Such, however, is not necessarily the point of a tribute. If this were a tombeau, it was not gloomy, some post-expressionist Angst prior to the close notwithstanding, but then why should it be? Perhaps this was more akin to an ode from Berlioz, Gluck, even Stravinsky; perhaps not. It intrigued, nevertheless, nowhere more so than in the soft, yet Fafner-like timpani of the closing bars: ‘dolce, quasi cantando’.

‘György Ligeti’s violin concerto is perhaps the most exciting violin concerto since Beethoven. It’s the concerto I most enjoy playing.’ Would that more violinists thought like Patricia Kopatchinskaja, whatever that might imply about some of those far from negligible concertos in between. (I shall except Schoenberg’s, since it is surely the most criminally neglected of all.) This was, it seems, the third time the Berlin Philharmonic had played the work, previous outings having come from Tamsin Little, also with Rattle, in 2003, and from Renaud Capuçon and David Robertson seven years later. There will doubtless always be a little personal eccentricity from Kopatchinskaja, but I cannot believe that her decision to play barefoot would have troubled anyone. If it did, so much the worse for him or her. (Our intrepid soloist even managed to persuade the leader, Daniel Stabrawa, to shed one of his shoes, when he joined her for a splendid encore performance of Ligeti’s very early (1950) Balad si joc.)

The solo opening suggested that this might be Ligeti very much in ‘process music’ mode. What especially intrigued about how both work and performance developed was that that was sort of true, but far from entirely so. That, one might say, is where music comes in. Kopatchinskaja’s solo line gradually distinguished itself more and more from the many other solo lines in this first movement Praeludium, taking on an almost ‘traditional’ virtuosic tinge, at least in the manner of Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale (squared). Kopatchinskaja’s duetting with tuned percussion proved one of the multiple delights here. In the second movement, I initially reflected how viola-like her tone sounded – until the viola soloist entered. A sensibility that was far from un-Romantic grew, until the moment of typical Ligetian madness when a quartet of woodwind players, Pied-Piper-like, took up their ocarinas. If the chorale section inevitably brought Berg to mind, what greater inspiration could there be?

The high, fantastical writing with which the Intermezzo opens had me think of Prokofiev, although, of course, it went very much its own way. Such was the intensity of the climax that it felt as though the music were over all too quickly. The slow, inevitable, riveting progress of the Passacaglia brought, as the movement came to its climax, further thoughts of Berg. This was almost incredibly committed playing from all concerned. Prokofiev sounded as if he were unwinding in the final movement, soon characterised by the reinstatement of a virtuosity it is difficult not to think of in some sense as ‘Hungarian’. Rattle left the stage, deadpan, for Kopatchinskaja to play her own cadenza: great fun, both gesturally and musically. There was a sense of trying to goad him and the orchestra to come back, eventually successful when the conductor reappeared from the percussion to bring the concerto to a close.

The second half was devoted to the Mahler symphony. Its first movement cannot escape from a certain sense of moulding, so perhaps sets itself up better for Rattle’s approach than some of the composer’s more (apparently, deceptively) simple inspirations. It certainly did not drag – unlike, say, the well-nigh unbearable performance I heard from Vladimir Jurowski last year. Rattle ensured that the score was treated affectionately yet not too much so, and at times, with a little yet not too much brusqueness. Stabrawa’s violin solo – and not just that – sounded sweetly sardonic, or should that be sardonically sweet? Mediaeval, or rather pseudo-mediaeval, pictorialism was appealing throughout, coexisting happily with Mahler’s idiosyncratic neo-Classicism. I was not sure what it all ‘meant’, but I am not sure that I should have been sure: that is not really the point, or at least need not be.

I was delighted to hear some vinegar in the second movement scordatura playing. Often, that ends up sounding ‘just’ dissonant, rather than making something (though never too much) out of the different tuning. Ligeti, I thought, would have approved. Counterpoint was admirably clear: one could really hear a multitude of lines, almost as if St Anthony of Padua were preaching to a shoal of particularly wayward, individualistic fish. However illusory, there remained a sense of essential simplicity to the slow movement, which sounded very much as if it grew out of Mahler’s four-part string writing: an expanded string quartet, almost. The sound was perhaps sweeter than one often hears, but not unreasonably so, and in any case often tended towards silver too. Not that the darker side was neglected, far from it, but the movement proved commendably un-hysterical. Thematic foreshadowings of the finale were nicely brought out, and that movement grew as ‘naturally’ as I have ever heard out of its predecessor, without a break, yet not rushed. Camilla Tilling offered one of the most interpretatively interesting accounts of the text I have heard. There was a greater range of vocal colour than one often hears, very much at the service of the words. Stylistically, she drew out, or so it seemed, the music’s kinship with the world of Hänsel und Gretel, whilst Rattle’s keen ear for instrumental detail enriched rather than overwhelming. Rarely have I heard so touching a performance of the final stanza, nor a more lingering, loving farewell from the harp. Mahler’s progressive tonality had indeed opened up a new, heavenly world.

Mark Berry

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