Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic illuminate Boulez and Mahler with mastery

Thu Nov 10, 2016 at 2:56 pm
Simon Rattle conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in music of Boulez and Mahler Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall.

Simon Rattle conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in music of Boulez and Mahler Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall.

The Berlin Philharmonic is back in town, playing two nights at Carnegie Hall under Simon Rattle, as part of his Perspectives Series. On the opening night Wednesday, playing music by Boulez and Mahler, the celebrated ensemble filled the space with a huge, gorgeous sound.

Pairing the two composers begs the question of how the works might be connected in Rattle’s, mind. The opener, Boulez’s Éclat for chamber orchestra has a structural connection to the main work, Mahler’s Symphony No. 7. With its bursting sonorities and sudden changes, it sounds as if shards of the larger work had been gathered and hung on a mobile. There is a psychological connection as well, with each mind leaping from thought to thought, creating context as they go. With Mahler, the thoughts are intensely personal and emotional; whereas Boulez aspires to extreme rationality.

Éclat has a sharp edge and the delicacy of spun glass, especially manifest in the composer’s  recording. There is no narrative thread, there are just events, and music like this can always be challenging listening. The performance was so expert and energetic that barely two minutes in it was apparent the audience was riveted, their ears open.

With Rattle and Berlin players, the performance was more colorful and also more emotional, the music stabbed out in scattered phrases and gestures. The composition uses Lutoslawski-like chance techniques and was played with the utmost musicality and an inherent exploration of meaning.

Even for Mahler, the Seventh is idiosyncratic. It is packed with the trademarks of his art; the violent juxtapositions of contrary and mercurial emotions, the formal movement from darkness to light, as well as some of the most astonishing orchestration from the greatest of all orchestrators. Like his other symphonies, the Seventh expresses a dramatic narrative akin to an instrumental opera.

But the narrative form in this symphony is entirely different. In place of a linear narrative, the five movements amount to episodes—Nights of Cabiria rather than I Vitelloni. Mahler’s typical endless melody is further chopped up into shorter phrases and gestures. Sudden and constantly churning modulations also interrupt any expectations of a long line.

These features make the symphony an interpretive challenge, one that not every musician can crack. Rattle understands the work, and has an exciting, characterful recording to his credit, with his former ensemble, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

The fervor and impetuosity of that interpretation was evident Wednesday night, with the substantial benefit of being channeled through the glorious Berliners. This was orchestral playing at its absolute finest. The dark, velvety strings produced enough volume on their own to fill the hall, and their plushness was a superb complement to the opening tenor horn solo. This  solo normally overpowers the rest of the orchestra, but Wednesday night the instrument’s great body of sound blended in a true ensemble, deepening the music’s impact.

There were moments of marvelous technique, like the muted echo to the solo horn in the first of the two “Nachtmusik” movements. Most of all there was a wild, tremendous energy, and at times frenzied, the musicians pushing at every edge and seam they could find in the music.

This was thrilling and beautiful to hear. The music is full of material that is emotionally expressive and that also serves as sonic effects, like in the nearly supernatural Scherzo, and the playing gave them superlative force. Rattle’s attention to the judicious detail produced delights like a tango feeling in the pizzicato bass part of the second “Nachtmusik.”

That came off as a dreamlike dance, and made a connection both to an earlier master of weird interior experiences, Berlioz, and to the Surrealists. Wednesday night, Mahler’s Seventh was a dream narrative, episodes in the life of the night, jumping from one ultra vivid moment to the next with the hermetic logic of the subconscious.

At the end of the these veering vignettes, the triumphant, at times frenetic, major key finale asserts victory—but over what, exactly? The previous stretches of darkness were evocative, colorful, nothing like the personal trials of earlier Mahler symphonies. Instead, day breaks, and the night leaves a deep impression, especially with such a spectacular performance.

Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in music by Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, and Brahms 8 p.m. Thursday at Carnegie Hall. carnegiehall.org

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