Mahler in Michigan: Rattle and the Berliners thrill in Ann Arbor

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle, conductor
Hill Auditorium
Ann Arbor, MI

November 12, 2016
Boulez: Éclat
Mahler: Symphony No. 7 in E minor

November 13, 2016
Schoenberg: Fünf Orchesterstücke, Op. 16
Webern: Sechs Stücke für Orchester, Op. 6b
Berg: Drei Orchesterstücke, Op. 6
Brahms: Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73

Last weekend saw the illustrious Berlin Philharmonic in Ann Arbor during a residency that included a pair of performances at Hill Auditorium as well as instrumental masterclasses with University of Michigan music students.  The stop in Ann Arbor was part of an extensive US tour, expected to be the orchestra’s last with its celebrated music director Sir Simon Rattle before he leaves Berlin for London and passes the baton to Kirill Petrenko.  Both concerts were filmed by CBS’ 60 Minutes for a forthcoming segment on Rattle.

Berlin Philharmonic 1 by Sebastian Haenel.jpg
Berliner Philharmoniker, photo credit Sebastian Haenel

Saturday evening’s program began with a tribute to the late Pierre Boulez, the extraordinary visionary the world lost at the beginning of the year.  Boulez had a long and fruitful relationship with the Berliners, and it was a testament to their mutual admiration that the orchestra took one of his compositions on the road, despite his often abstruse language having the potential to alienate many audience members.  I certainly do not claim to have a thorough grasp of Boulez’s idiom, but nonetheless found the performance to be an altogether engaging aural experience and striking experiment in orchestral color.

Éclat dates from 1965 and is scored for a modest ensemble of fifteen instruments.  It is concerned with a dialogue between instruments with a resonance that abruptly fades (notably, piano, mandolin, guitar, and cimbalom), and the strings and winds, which can be sustained indefinitely.  The work opened with aggressive and virtuosic playing from pianist Majella Stockhausena before the latter category of instruments added their voice.  Rattle’s conducting was razor sharp, giving every phrase a sense of purpose regardless of how disconcerting it might sound to the ear to make the piece coalesce into more than just a collection of the fragments suggested by the title.  Yet by the same token, one was also struck at the interpretative latitude Rattle gave the musicians within the overarching structure to promote a lively conversation.

The bulk of the program was devoted to Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, itself an evening’s worth of music in its own right.  Easily the most enigmatic of Mahler’s symphonic corpus, it served as perhaps another tip of the hat to Boulez who had a revelatory and unashamedly modernist conception of the piece, as documented in his recording with the Cleveland Orchestra.  Rattle’s interpretation sought middle ground between Boulezian modernism and the hyper-Romantic reading of a Bernstein, for instance.  Impressively, Rattle conducted the entire score from memory, and his overall tempo choices were moderate with a total performance time clocking in just below the 80 minute mark.

Mahler famously said that a symphony should encompass the world; in the Seventh, the vast first movement alone embodies that scope.  Its opening was arresting in the richness of the tenor horn cast over an unsettling accompaniment, the rhythm of the latter purportedly inspired by the oars of a boat dipping into the water.  Contrast was to be found in the soaring melodies of the strings – with the violins split on either side of Rattle – in music of aching lyricism.  Most striking was the pastoral idyll at the movement’s midpoint, a beckoning to the providential vision of the Austrian countryside.  The level of intensity was ramped up for the coda in a thrilling conclusion.

The first of the two movements labelled Nachtmusik opened with a yearning horn call from principal Stefan Dohr before a lilting waltz in the cellos.  Distant cowbells were heard offstage, this wistful alpine dream serving as respite from the fractured psyche of fin de siècle Vienna.  The middle movement of the large-scale symmetrical architecture was a ghostly retreat to the shadows, notable for the orchestra’s mercurial playing.  In the latter Nachtmusik, there was delicate and refined playing from concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley, and the texture was made all the more sumptuous by harpist Marie-Pierre Langlamet.  The mandolin and guitar aren’t instruments that regularly appear in the standard orchestral literature, so it was a case of clever and certainly efficient programming that they were featured in both the evening’s works, with Detlef Tewes and Matthew Hunter respectively.  The pair were in fine form and gave the movement the feel of a lovely serenade.

The finale has perennially perplexed audiences, its seemingly unbridled optimism circumventing the enigmas confounded by the preceding.  Rattle seemed utterly convinced that this wasn’t music to be taken at face value and probed beneath the surface, emphasizing its parody and irony.  The thunderous timpani awakened matters from the night, and the sunrise first appeared in the shining brass.  Its obvious homage to Wagner’s courtly Meistersinger was tempered through a more rustic sensibility, the type of garish juxtaposition Rattle was keen to accentuate.  With a propulsive forward drive, the movement proceeded to a well-earned, glorious conclusion, the capacity crowd (no small feat given that the concert coincided with the Michigan vs. Iowa game!) responding with a tumultuous ovation.

simon-rattle-4-by-stephan-rabold
Sir Simon Rattle, photo credit Stephan Rabold

Sunday afternoon’s concert picked up right where Saturday’s left off, with the first half comprised of the sets of orchestral pieces of Schoenberg and his disciples Webern and Berg.  These three composers were faced with the not insubstantial question of what one could possibly write in the wake of Mahler, and while it erred dangerously close to an overdose of the Second Viennese School, programming all three sets gave the listener an intriguing look at the direction Mahler might have gone had he lived a few more years.  Rattle elected to perform them without pause between, and in his spoken introduction invited the audience to conceive of it as “a 14 movement suite” or “Mahler’s eleventh symphony.”

Each of the 14 pieces are relatively brief, as if a shard of broken Romanticism, distilled to its essential meaning.  Schoenberg’s Five Pieces were given with an intensity that rivaled that of James Levine’s performance I saw in Chicago just the previous week.  The repeated figure in the celesta made the titular reminiscences of Vergangenes all the more unnerving, and Farben was a shimmering exposé in orchestral color.  A calmer moment in Peripetie was given by principal flutist Mathieu Dufour, a familiar face to this listener as he previously held that position with the Chicago Symphony.

Webern’s Six Pieces were presented in the revised 1928 version, scored for a somewhat slimmer orchestra.  Surprising lyricism was to be found in the otherwise terse and aphoristic opening selection while the third was characterized by a viola solo.  The fourth was the most extended, with rumbling percussion building to a massive, unrelenting crescendo, contrasted by the clarinet passagework of principal Wenzel Fuchs.

Berg’s Three Pieces were the most patently Mahlerian.  The opening Präludium, while otherwise impressionistic, began and ended with the percussion evoking a military band, a familiar device from a Mahler symphony.  Daishin Kashimoto assumed concertmaster duties for the Sunday performance and was prominent in Reigen, obliquely suggesting the waltz and the ländler as obfuscated through the distorted lens of expressionism.  The ferocious Marsch was firmly in the realm of the grotesque, ending with a cataclysmic hammer blow, suggesting Mahler’s Sixth Symphony of which Berg was a staunch admirer.

More familiar territory – and a welcome relief – came after intermission with Brahms’ genial Second Symphony.  While Brahms is often thought of as a dean of conservatism, this was another clever programming choice as an article from Schoenberg’s pen once provocatively christened Brahms a progressive.  It began unassumingly with a gentle dip in the cellos, unhurried and basking in its pastoral beauty.  Rattle eschewed the repeat of the exposition, instead opting for a tauter structure.  The lushness of the low strings opened the slow movement, and music of gorgeous serenity poured from the orchestra.  The winds were in top form during the scherzo, contrasted by the quicksilver energy of the strings which set the stage for the exultant finale, leaving Sunday’s audience uplifted in its celestial radiance.

Rattle AA

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