Sir Simon Rattle / BerlinPhilharmonics
Boulez / Mahler

KKL Lucerne, 2016-08-30

4-star rating


2016-09-06 — Original posting

Sir Simon Rattle (© Thomas Rabsch)
Sir Simon Rattle (© Thomas Rabsch)

Introduction

Sir Simon Rattle (*1955) and the Berlin Philharmonics are doing several tours this year. One of these took them to the Lucerne Festival, then to the BBC PROMs at Royal Albert Hall in London. Later this year they will travel to both coasts in the US. One of the programs they are performing on these tours features two compositions that could barely be more different: the short fragment “Éclat” by Pierre Boulez (10 minutes), and Gustav Mahler’s comparatively huge Seventh Symphony (80 minutes).

If it weren’t so radically different, one could see Boulez’ piece as introduction to the Mahler symphony. But the difference isn’t just in the length of the compositions and in their style: Mahler’s symphony (typical for that composer) is written for a very large instrumental setting, while Boulez’s “Éclat” is for 15 instrumentalists only — and even those few players operate in a very “diluted” score, i.e., for most of the time, the texture of that piece is very “thin”. The program notes talk about “kleine und große Nachtmusik”. The latter is adequate for the symphony. However, I could not say that the former is really a good attribution: at least, as a listener, I did not associate this piece with a specific time of the day.

Pierre Boulez: “Éclat

The Composition

The late Pierre Boulez (1925 – 2016) wrote “Éclat for fifteen Instruments in 1964/65, for the “Monday Evening Concerts” in Los Angeles. He  later added a second section “Multiples“, only to be performed in connection with “Éclat“. At some point in the ’70s he mentioned that he has “much more material” for “Éclat” — but this never turned into reality.

Expanding on the differences between the two compositions in the program: the Mahler symphony is very expressive. It often feels “driven”. In the listener, it evokes a multitude of emotions—fairly directly. In contrast, “Éclat” is a mostly silent, discreet compositions. It invites the listener to explore the scarce soundscape, to listen into the passing of sounds. As a composition, it does not open up itself to the listener, it barely evokes associations. It does not depict concrete pictures / scenery, but rather sticks to a completely abstract language. A blank sheet of paper, in a way, a void that invites the listener to let go, maybe to full the empty spaces with one’s own imagination and thoughts.

The Music

One could declare the beginning of the piece an “Éclat” (splash) of sorts. A sequence of short, vehement sound clusters, played on an open concert grand. These clusters come in multiple “attacks”, each decaying into silence. Gradually, the piano is joined by the harp, then percussive instruments (glockenspiel, vibraphone, cymbalom, tube bells, celesta). However, after the initial splash, the soundscape gradually turns towards scarcity, remains “thin” for most of the piece. Sounds die away, leaving room for (or evoking / provoking) expectations.

Outside of the short motifs and maybe the final segment, there is barely ever any obvious rhythm. Of course, the piece is also devoid of recognizable harmonic or melodic structure, except maybe for motifs responding to receding sound “events”. As a listener, one remains freely “suspended” in a shapeless void. One can “let things happen”, take the sounds as guide through an unknown territory. Only during the last minute, the sounds grow denser, and a viola, cello, cor anglais, trumpet and trombone are joining in (there is also a guitar and a mandolin, but these barely ever play prominent roles). That final build-up suddenly decays into silence, almost as a surprise: no final éclat!

The Performance

The stage was set up for the full instrumental setting of the subsequent symphony. Sir Simon led the small ensemble from the center of the podium. The instrumentalists were loosely grouped in the rear (middle and left) part of the stage. The piece required everybody’s full concentration, I experienced the playing as very precise and disciplined. Achieving transparency is not an issue with this music. Sir Simon Rattle conducted with a special sign language, giving cues to specific players, indicating score segments. Finger counts indicated the sequence of form elements (to be decided spontaneously).

I found this to be very interesting music. My only minor, critical remark: the open concert grand (Steinway D) at the left edge of the stage to me sounded somewhat ill-defined, blurred, vague. This felt a bit odd, particularly as the echo chambers in the White Hall of the KKL were essentially closed, which should lead to relatively dry acoustics.

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No.7

The creation process of Symphony No.7 by Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911) was rather painful. Already when he composed his Symphony No.6, he had finished the two “Nachtmusik” (night music) movements. But then, he ran into a blockage in the composing process. It wasn’t until he visited one of his favorite places at the Wörthersee in Austria, where he received the essential “kick” and allegedly finished the remaining three movements in a mere four weeks, 1904/1905.

The world première in Prague was 1908—and its success was very moderate at best. Notable conductors such as Sir Georg Solti stated that they had a hard time understanding it, particularly the first movement. Ever since, this symphony has been performed rarely, less frequently than the others. Interestingly, Mahler himself described the symphony as “predominantly serene”.

Instrumentation

Mahler’s asks for a large instrumental setting, including

  • 1 /2 piccolos, 4 / 3 flutes, 3 oboes, cor anglais, clarinet in E♭, 3 clarinets in A and B♭, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contra-bassoon,
  • tenor horn in B, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba,
  • drums, percussion (including bells and cowbells),
  • 2 harps, guitar, mandolin,
  • strings.

The two violin groups were placed on either side of the podium, violas behind the first violin, cellos behind the second violin, double basses on the right side, in the rear.

The Movements

The composition features five movements:

  1. Langsam (Adagio, 4/4) — Allegro risoluto, ma non troppo (2/2)
  2. Nachtmusik I: Allegro moderato (4/4)
  3. Scherzo: Schattenhaft. Fliessend, aber nicht schnell (3/4) — Trio (3/4) — Scherzo: Wieder wie zu Anfang
  4. Nachtmusik II: Andante amoroso (2/4)
  5. Rondo-Finale. Allegro ordinario — Allegro moderato ma energico (4/4)

Some commenters refer to this symphony as the “Lied der Nacht” (Song of the Night), referring to the movements II and IV. However, that title definitely is not Mahler’s and would barely have found Mahler’s approval.

The Performance

Sir Simon Rattle obviously knows this symphony inside out: he conducted without score. The Berlin Philharmonics presented themselves in best shape, offering an excellent performance throughout:

I. Langsam — Allegro risoluto, ma non troppo

At the very beginning of the symphony, I spontaneously thought of the term “Spaltklang”, which in German indicates extreme transparency in sound. To me, the brass instruments sounded very direct (a little too direct), not really embedded in the orchestral sound. I was asking myself whether the conductor prefers an analytical, transparent soundscape, or whether the echo chambers in the hall remained mostly closed for the initial piece by Boulez? However, these concerns soon proved pointless, as later in the movement, the orchestra did justice to the string sections, which presented their homogeneous, dense sound. Maybe I just needed to adjust my hearing to the sound of the full orchestra?

Often in that first movement, the tempo appeared somewhat pushed: when Mahler noted “Nicht schleppen” (don’t drag) in the score, Rattle took this as indication to start accelerating. It felt as if Rattle intended to point out the restless, driven side in Mahler’s character. A bit of complacent, Viennese atmosphere only arrived with the violin solo in the second part of the movement—though the conductor obviously wanted  to avoid the impression of coziness.

Only towards the end of the Allegro risoluto, ma non troppo, the music turns calm, a spirit of warmth, secureness emerged. However, Sir Simon Rattle kept the emotions under control, avoiding any impression of exuberance. He formed large phrases, arches, shaping the epic width of the movement into a convincing, grippingly dramatic entity.

II. Nachtmusik I: Allegro moderato

The first “night music” at times felt like a surreal, ghastly chamber play. It evoked a dreamy world, a multitude of passing sceneries, with the accompaniment of distant cowbells, moving on to dance scenes, later also the music of marching bands. I particularly liked the excellent ppp playing, especially with the flutes, and the orchestra convinced by creating the impression of a fully integrated ensemble, particularly in the wind section, rather than a group of soloists, trying to excel by themselves, individually.

III. Scherzo: Schattenhaft — Trio — Scherzo

The Scherzo is very virtuosic, rushing by, ghost-like (schattenhaft means shadow-like). However, the Berlin Philharmonics never turned it into an extroverted showpiece. Despite all the rapid figurations in the muted strings, the movement never felt rushed, driven. I really liked the Trio: this was atmospheric, dance-like, relaxed, unbound. It formed a strong contrast to the taut atmosphere in the Scherzo parts. While in the movement, this felt like the culmination of the symphony, in its intensity.

IV. Nachtmusik II: Andante amoroso

Nachtmusik II, the second night music, was excellent, too. It spread an atmosphere like in a soft countryside. The vibrato in the expressive violin solo was maybe at the upper limit, slightly (too) nervous. Another set of dreamy soundscapes, flourishing in waves (in a controlled manner, though), calming down, picking up momentum again, pausing intermittently. The atmosphere is often melancholic, yet always affectionate and intense, even in moments of tense expectation, or when the movement finally fades away into silence.

V. Rondo – Finale

In the Rondo-Finale, at last, the atmosphere turned loose, exuberant, sometimes almost boisterous. Often, the movement appears to push towards the end—however, it certainly also features calm, almost intimate moments. To me, it soon felt as if Mahler and the conductor had finally “homed in”, found the “center”, their goal, their intent with this music.

The score is very demanding, with its frequent tempo changes, sometimes challenging even for a top orchestra such as this one. Still, I never had the impression of an ultra-polished showpiece. Where occasionally the hornists jointly were holding up the bell of their instruments, this was not mere show, but exactly what Mahler asked for in his detailed, meticulous score.

Sir Simon Rattle did not conduct every tiny detail or control every single soloist, but left room for creativity, for the joy of making music. The sound of bells accompanies a vivid, festive folklore scenery. Almost abruptly, the symphony ends in a big splash, the final blast in a firework.

Conclusion

In Sir Simon Rattle’s hands, Mahler’s music never felt static. The musical flow never stops. the impression of unrest, the driven atmosphere was limited to parts of the first movement—and surely, this must have been the conductor’s intent. I experienced both an excellent orchestral performance, as well as a very convincing, compelling interpretation. Overall, I definitely asked myself why so many people (apparently) find this symphony hard to understand.


Addendum:

For the same concert, I have also written a (much shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com, see also the note at the top. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review.



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