Rattle, Philadelphia Orchestra deliver a deep and magnificent Mahler Sixth
2016 has been a great year for Mahler in New York City, with three unforgettable performances by the New York Philharmonic: the Sixth Symphony under Semyon Bychkov in February, Symphony No. 9, led by Bernard Haitink and Das Lied von der Erde, under Alan Gilbert, both in April.
To this, now add a magnificent performance of Symphony No. 6 played by the Philadelphia Orchestra and conductor Simon Rattle Monday night in Carnegie Hall, as part of Rattle’s “Perspectives” Series.
This was not better than the earlier Philharmonic concert, but different—in a way that demonstrated the ways in which each orchestra is a great ensemble, and one that underlined the depth, fecundity, and power of Mahler’s music.
All those qualities were revealed under Rattle’s direction. The conductor–who is also currently leading performances of Tristan und Isolde at the Metropolitan Opera–was appreciably more interventionist than Bychkov, and his choices were intelligent, yielding a succession of dazzling moments.
Among the details were an emphasis on bass lines and lower string phrases. But most striking was the way Rattle took command of the shape of the symphony. He placed the Andante moderato (played with a slow interpretation of that indication) second, and used a quick segue to meld the stream-of-consciousness waltzes of the scherzo together with the enormous finale, making for a novella in place of the usual two short stories.
The general musical narrative of the symphony is a journey out of darkness toward light, but one that ultimately fails, ending in the sound of the first handful of dirt tossed on a coffin lid. Along the way are exuberant reveries of love and nature, wild dances, emotional turmoil. Putting the Andante second brings out a heightened contrast between the highs and the lows.
Inside this were episodes that pushed the narrative expression even further. The performance began with an intense, heavy Allegro energetico, with an aggressive march feeling. After the repeat, the middle section of the movement seemed at first to lose intensity. But given time for the music to unfold, this turned out to be an interlude of innocence, even naïvety. When the opening music returned, the contrast of feelings gave it that much more ferocity.
Ferocity is the word that captures the quality of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s playing. This was as fine an example of orchestral musicianship as one will hear, a performance that makes evaluation of sheer technique irrelevant. There were moments where coordination and precision were on the verge of falling apart, but these were exhilaratingly musical expressions of energy and artistic commitment that came out of an overall feeling of freedom. Organized around tempos and downbeats, the orchestra seemed almost to be improvising, sections listening and responding to each other in the context of Mahler’s writing.
The sound was gorgeous, rich and full of complex dark hues. The Philharmonic plays Mahler with an inherent, and ideal, tinge of neurosis, something that New York City shares with fin-de-siècle Vienna, while Philly has an equally effective sense of the old world discovering new music. The woodwinds—Rattle singled them out for praise during the ovation—produced a haunting sound, a cloud-like synthesis of timbres. Every section had the opportunity to express Mahler’s unsurpassed orchestration, which goes beyond color into wrenching psychological effects, like growls and cries.
Rattle placed the cowbells for the opening and final movement offstage. The effect sounded unexpectedly flat in the first movement, with no space between the bells and the orchestra and no lontano feeling. But music is about change, and changing experiences, through time, and in the final movement the bells were a distant memory of life to which the music clung. Rattle also put the tubular bells offstage, which proved bitingly effective, the sound carrying a heavy weight of loss.
Even with the dimensions and colors of the sound, the polyphony came through clearly. Transformations between light and dark, whether through gradual shadings or jolting juxtapositions, were extraordinary. Even more effective was the consistent treatment of music that rose in register before descending—the latter motion became a kind of disintegration, the music not only falling but the will, the soul failing and shattering.
For all of the tremendous, immediate impact, this was still a subtle performance. Rattle’s care with the overall form meant that internal details needed little preparation and no exaggeration. The enormous, bright-sour chord that comes before the final cadence in the first movement grew naturally, overwhelmed the listener, then morphed into the final phrases. The very last phrase of the symphony, in the basses, was bitter with a despair that had accumulated through the previous 80 minutes—it sounded like an intuitive premonition of how the symphony would end. After the last, crushing chord, the final gesture was grimness itself, leaving an indelible mark.
Simon Rattle conducts Ensemble Connect in Zankel Hall 3 p.m. Sunday. carnegiehall.org