United Kingdom Mahler: London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 1.5.2018. (JQ)
Mahler – Symphony No.9 in D
Sir Simon Rattle has lost little time in bringing his new orchestra to play in the hall where he enjoyed so much early success: the hall, moreover, of which he was such a leading supporter when it was just at the “twinkle in the eye” stage. Towards the end of his first season as Music Director of the LSO he brought the orchestra to Symphony Hall and a full house of Birmingham music lovers got the chance to experience the (relatively) new partnership in the music of a composer who featured so prominently during Rattle’s 18 years at the helm of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra: Gustav Mahler.
This concert was part of a period that sees Rattle and the LSO steeped in Mahler’s final works. Since 18 April they’ve played the Ninth in concerts in London and several European venues. They’ve also performed of the Tenth in Deryck Cooke’s performing version and following tonight’s concert they’re taking both symphonies and Das Lied von der Erde on a four-concert visit to the USA. Incidentally, their London performance of the Tenth (review) was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and those with access to the BBC iPlayer have about three weeks left to hear the concert. My colleague Mark Berry reviewed the London performance of the Ninth, a programme which also included the world premiere of Woven Space by Helen Grime
The publicity blurb for this concert rather mischievously included the statement that “since no London venue compares to Symphony Hall, this will be a rare chance for UK audiences to hear this new partnership in a truly world-class acoustic.” I was certainly eager to experience the LSO in this wonderful hall.
Rattle, who was greeted very warmly when he came on to the stage, scored heavily with me before a note had been played by dividing the violins left and right. I love to hear an orchestra playing with this disposition of forces but to the best of my recollection this is the first time I’ve experienced it in a live Mahler performance. There was a small price to pay in that the cello line wasn’t quite as prominent as is usually the case – or at least not from my stalls seat slightly to the conductor’s right. However, the gains were immeasurable. Apart from the delight of hearing clearly two quite distinct violin parts, what Rattle’s layout brought home forcibly to me was how crucially important the second violin section is in this symphony. Mahler frequently gives the section clear primacy over their colleagues in the first violin section. Having experienced this, I think a conventional string layout in this symphony is likely to be second best for me from now on.
Having thus seated his seconds, Rattle proceeded to make the most of the disposition. So, for example, when the seconds introduced us to the first movement’s principal melodic idea Rattle lavished care and attention on the players, inviting and encouraging them to deliver the theme with eloquence. Indeed, throughout the symphony he turned to the seconds at least as often as he did to the firsts in order to draw from them phrases or nuances. That, of course, is typical of a Rattle performance: he constantly communicates with his players by facial expressions and by gestures to get the most out of them and although, of course, his back was towards the audience for most of the time it was evident that such was the case tonight. I know that some regard this as micro-management of a performance. I respectfully disagree. Rattle is so caught up in the music that he lives and breathes it with his players. Such has always been his way. Tonight, he conducted from memory – a prodigious feat in itself, given the complexity of the music – and while he paid copious attention to the detail in the score I never felt that this was at the expense of the Big Picture.
I consider the first movement of the Ninth to be one of the greatest – perhaps the greatest – symphonic movement in twentieth century music. In this movement, Mahler engages with and expresses profound emotions yet at the same time his music teems with detail. From moment to moment the music often exists as fragments heard on individual instruments, one after another. The task facing the conductor – and it’s a tremendous one – is to weld these fragments into a seamless whole so that the listener is aware of each little cell yet, at the same time, is unaware of them as individual musical entities. I thought Rattle passed this test with flying colours, aided and abetted by playing from the LSO who delivered Mahler’s music with pin-point accuracy and no little feeling. The wrenching climaxes were thrust home with great power but my attention was drawn even more forcibly to the many quiet passages which were delivered with the utmost finesse. The gentle melancholy of the closing pages was beautifully judged and was put across with great care and understanding. This movement contains many episodes but tonight they were welded into a seamless narrative by Rattle in a performance that gripped me from start to finish.
The Ländler second movement was no less successful. Here, the playing had definition, precision and character. The primary colours of Mahler’s orchestration were relished to the full and the performance was full of pungent rhythms. I thought Rattle paced and characterised the music very well. The Ländler themes were not delivered with too heavy a hand but neither were they played in an over-hasty or lightweight fashion. The Rondo-Burleske was vividly projected in a tart and taut performance. Much of the music is strong in profile and loud in dynamics; all the more reason, therefore, to pay due respect to the more delicate episodes. That was achieved here. Midway through the movement, there’s a pause in the frenetic activity for a nostalgic, trumpet-led episode which pre-figures the fourth movement. Some conductors take this section at a tempo that is considerably slower than the main body of the movement. Rattle, however, adopted a more flowing tempo. As a result, although the change in mood was certainly registered, the movement as a whole cohered better and momentum was maintained. When the Rondo material reappeared, the playing was vehement and virtuoso.
Many years ago – in the late 1990s, I think – I attended a performance of the Ninth that Rattle gave with the CBSO in this very hall. Uniquely in my experience, both before and since that evening, Rattle then made only the briefest of pauses – two or three seconds – between the third and fourth movements. So it was tonight. It’s a controversial thing to do: some may feel that the transition from one movement to the next is too abrupt. Though I might not wish to hear the music treated in this way every time, the decision works for me: the briefest of pauses means that there’s no diminution of tension and one is plunged straight from the seething turmoil that is the end of the Rondo-Burleske into the aching melancholy of the Adagio.
Throughout the performance I’d been profoundly impressed by the playing of the LSO but in this long finale they seemed to move to an altogether higher plane. The richness and depth of tone that we heard from the string choir in the opening minutes of this movement was a marvel. The sound per se was quite wonderful and Rattle encouraged his players to rare eloquence. Later, a harp ostinato introduces an extended, eerily quiet passage. Here, so breathtakingly quiet and atmospheric was the playing that it was as if time were standing still. The central climax itself provided, as it should, the emotional pinnacle not just of the movement but of the work. Hereabouts, the sheer weight and quality of tone from the orchestra was inspiring to hear. Too soon, the deeply poignant closing pages were upon us. Here, the LSO strings delivered Mahler’s highly exposed concluding phrases on the merest thread of sound. In the past I’ve often been disappointed by coughs and other extraneous noises from the Symphony Hall audience but tonight it was as if everyone was holding their breath and the fragile sounds were absorbed by the audience in near-silence. After the last sound had died away audience and orchestra maintained concentration and stillness for a very long moment: the profound, attentive silence spoke for itself.
This was a performance of rare distinction and utterly compelling. Simon Rattle has his critics as a Mahler conductor but I’ve almost invariably found him to be convincing, both in his mastery of detail and in his ability to take the long view. Tonight, I was utterly convinced. As for the LSO, I have had the privilege of hearing a good number of exceptional performances by various orchestras in a variety of venues but this was one of the finest I can recall hearing. Heard in an ideal acoustic, the LSO confirmed their credentials as a world class orchestra, impressing not just with the dynamic range and virtuosity of their playing but also with their evident affinity with the music. The orchestra doesn’t often visit Symphony Hall. It is to be hoped that with Sir Simon Rattle now installed as their Music Director more frequent visits may result.
The capacity audience responded to the performance with a huge ovation. Eventually, Rattle gestured for silence. Addressing us, he said that he never speaks after concerts but on this occasion, he wanted to do so. Briefly, and with evident sincerity, he expressed his pleasure at returning to this wonderful hall and to the Birmingham musical public “with my new family”. It was some homecoming!