Thursday, November 24, 2016

Giving Thanks for Simon Rattle

Attending classical music concerts and operas as a teenager and continuing on through my current old age, live performances tend to blur together, but there are a couple of dozen that stand out vibrantly in memory as exceptional touchstones, and three of them involved the British conductor Simon Rattle above. First off was Rattle as a very young man in the late 1970s conducting the San Francisco Symphony when they still played in the SF Opera House. He conducted Ravel's Mother Goose Suite and Mahler's 10th Symphony in Deryck Cooke's then-recent orchestration of the composer's incomplete final symphony, and I walked out thinking that I had never heard the orchestra sound so wonderful. Three years ago, I made my first and only visit to New York's Carnegie Hall where Rattle was conducting Webern, Berg, Ligeti and Beethoven's Sixth with the Philadelphia Orchestra (click here).

Last night I attended the final stop of the U.S. tour of the Berlin Philharmonic, where Rattle has been Music Director for the last 15 years, and heard them play a long, challenging, brilliant survey of the early 20th Century Second Viennese School with Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra, Webern's Six Pieces for Orchestra, and Berg's Three Pieces for Orchesrta. In a short introduction, Rattle posited that all three of these atonal, groundbreaking masterpieces were reactions to Mahler's Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, where tonality was pushed to its grandiose, extreme limits. "What could possibly come next?"

Rattle asked that the audience not applaud between the three pieces and to think of the works as a 14-movement Suite or Mahler's imaginary 11th Symphony. Whatever it was, the music was fascinating, expressive, lush, spare, difficult and occasionally even beautiful. I'm not sure playing the three suites without pause was the best way to hear the music, especially if you were unfamiliar with the pieces ahead of time like myself. The wild, loud fourth movement of the Webern (the funeral march) was a false alarm for its ending so that the transition from Webern to Berg was confusing. A long pause without applause would have helped. The Schoenberg was interesting and thorny, the Webern concise and totally compelling, and the Berg sounded a bit like he had "put Mahler's Sixth Symphony into a trash compactor," in Rattle's words. It sounded like the precursor to Berio's Sinfonia from the 1960s. The playing by the orchestra throughout was magisterial.

At intermission, drinking a beer in the lobby, I talked with an arts administrator who had come to the same conclusion as myself about the evening. "Here we are, on the night before Thanksgiving, not worrying about the holiday or family, but listening to the Berlin Philharmonic with Simon Rattle conducting, and it is awesome. There is no single place on earth we would rather be at this moment."

The Brahms Symphony #2 after intermission was the first time I have ever heard a Brahms symphony live sound as good as the old mono Walter recordings I grew up with. And it sounded nothing like Walter's version. Instead, the music was ramped up to an almost abandoned extent, linking Brahms with Mahler and his Schoenbergian successors, while at the same time preserving extraordinary clarity in all parts of the orchestra. The performance by the huge Berlin Philharmonic string section, in paticular, was thrilling in its sensuous plushness, a wall of sound I've never heard in Davies Hall before and don't expect to ever hear again. As a musician put it who was sitting next to me, "I've never seen a string section dance and throw themselves into the music like that." The audience walked out vibrating.


Stephen Smoliar said...

I have found that the best way to listen to the Berg pieces is as rough drafts for Wozzeck; and, after this week's performances, I now find myself hearing shadows of that opera in the Mahler seventh!

tây bụi said...

I left the program with the same sensation. It was fairly staid and standard Brahms Symphony and it sounded really wild yet totally under control. The strings had a kind of cohesion that I've never heard before. The oboe player also had different timbre that gave a clarity to the orchestration. I agree that the 14 movement symphony was not an absolute success as a work, but it was a provocative idea and clearly showed that the three composers were all in the same place trying to do the same thing. I was disappointed the Chronicle reviewer. He didn't seem to have gotten much out of the performance - a pity for him.

Stephen Smoliar said...

I thought there was one minor loss of control. The horn solos in the second movement of the Brahms seemed to go out of whack. However, he did not have very much trouble realigning himself with the rest of the ensemble; so I felt that was a passing glitch that was quickly resolved.