From The New Yorker: “The Conductor Intensifying Mahler Through Restraint”

Rea Irvin

The New Yorker

May 28, 2018
Alex Ross

Sir Simon Rattle by Urs Flueeler-AP

On June 20th, Simon Rattle will end a sixteen-year tenure as the principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic—a post of quasi-papal authority in the classical-music world.

How Rattle should be judged against predecessors on the order of Hans von Bülow, Arthur Nikisch, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan, and Claudio Abbado is for the musical sages of Berlin to decide. From a distance, Rattle appears to have left a distinctive stamp on the institution. He has promoted contemporary music with unprecedented vigor; he has given new prominence to French, British, and American fare; he has presided over such staggering spectacles as Stockhausen’s “Gruppen,” presented at Tempelhof Airport, and the Bach Passions, as staged by Peter Sellars. If any question mark hovers over his legacy, it has to do with his handling of mainstream nineteenth-century repertory, where his quest for fresh-scrubbed renditions has sometimes worked wonders—a darkly radiant “Parsifal can be seen at the Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall—and sometimes had inconclusive results. Kirill Petrenko, Rattle’s successor, is a conductor of more traditional cast: that turn will please some and disappoint others.

Berlin Philharmonic©Stefan Hoederath

Now sixty-three, Rattle is still a young gazelle in conductor years—the Swedish maestro Herbert Blomstedt is giving revelatory performances at the age of ninety—and the close of Rattle’s Berlin tenure will almost certainly not mark the end of the major phase of his career. Indeed, a series of Mahler concerts that Rattle gave with the London Symphony in early May made me wonder whether he is arriving at a new level of mastery.

London Symphony Orchestra ©-Gautier-Deblonde

He became the music director of the L.S.O. last September, and the orchestra is playing sensationally well for him. You have the sense of a conductor and an ensemble in near-perfect alignment. The Berlin Philharmonic would undoubtedly prefer not to be considered a stepping stone to greater things, but this may turn out to be its role in the arc of Rattle’s career—as was true for Abbado, who hit his peak in his final decade, when he was based at the Lucerne Festival.

Each of the L.S.O. concerts consisted of a single late-period Mahler work: the Ninth Symphony, Das Lied von der Erde, and the unfinished Tenth Symphony, in the realization by Deryck Cooke. (I heard the Ninth at MJPAC, in Newark, the others at David Geffen Hall.) Rattle, a veteran Mahlerian, has offered this trio of colossal valedictions before, in concerts with the Berliners at Carnegie, in 2007. His ideas about Mahler have not changed dramatically in the interim. He avoids the sweaty transfigurations that Leonard Bernstein established as common practice for Mahler. Where other conductors emphasize voluptuous, post-Wagnerian sonorities, Rattle prefers a leaner, tighter sound; where others indulge in flamboyant ritardandos, he keeps to a steadier tempo.

Rattle’s aversion to cliché can lead to performances that seem like arrays of contrarian insights rather than fully integrated interpretations. The 2007 Mahler concerts never quite rose above the level of the impressive. Eleven years on, Rattle has found an ideal balance of precision and intensity. The opening section of the first movement of the Ninth unfolded in one great Proustian paragraph, lucid yet impassioned. The music wasn’t smoothed over or rendered inert: isolated details—stray harp notes, scuttling low-wind figures, a repeated two-note signal in the horns—pierced the murk with unsettling potency. (A horn-playing friend who joined me at NJPAC marvelled at the musicians’ tonal control.) Adam Walker, the co-principal flute, brought an otherworldly sound to his meandering solo at the end of the first movement; Gareth Davies, the other principal flutist and the orchestra’s chairman, was equally transfixing in the Tenth.

Not all of Rattle’s interventions were successful. In the savage Rondo-Burleske of the Ninth Symphony, he refused to linger over the aching phrases in the movement’s contrasting lyric episode. (He did the same in 2007.) As a result, the return of the slashing main theme didn’t induce a shiver of terror, as the score all but requires. Wildness is not Rattle’s way, though. His strategy of intensification through restraint paid off in the final pages, when the string section achieved an uncanny, hovering stillness. The strings played at times with little or no vibrato, producing an eerie “white” sound. Usually, the piece ends with a feeling of agonized farewell; here, the music seemed to emanate from the other side of the line between life and death.

Rattle is the world’s leading proponent of the Mahler Tenth, having first recorded the Cooke edition of the work back in 1980, when he was twenty-five. That version, with the Bournemouth Symphony, is more vivid than a subsequent account with the Berliners. Let’s hope that the L.S.O. rendition appears on disk in due course: the performance at Geffen combined a monumental architectural shape—no other work by Mahler comes as close to Bruckner—with moments of unchecked emotional ferocity. The final bars radiated an almost shocking sweetness, as if to suggest that Mahler, at the end of his life, were reliving scenes from childhood.

The vocalists in Das Lied were the robust Wagner tenor Stuart Skelton and the wizardly baritone Christian Gerhaher. In the opening movement, Skelton battled an overbearing orchestra, as the tenor invariably must in this piece, yet he nobly held his ground. Gerhaher, a singer-poet out of Caspar David Friedrich, shone through the far more transparent textures of Der Abschied, the half-hour finale. Listeners accustomed to the autumnal warmth of a mezzo-soprano in Der Abschied might have found Gerhaher too cool and reserved, but for me the inward, confiding quality of his vocalism gave human focus to Mahler’s sprawling landscape. His closing repetitions of ewigforever—were like distant figures disappearing into mist.


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