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Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic: A musical experience of a lifetime

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Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic at Symphony Hall. Photo Robert Torres.

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic at Symphony Hall. Photo Robert Torres.

Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker
Symphony Hall, Boston
November 11, 2016

After the stunning concert with Simon Rattle leading the Berliner Philharmoniker at Boston’s Symphony Hall—Pierre Boulez’s scintillating Éclat followed (without intermission) by Mahler’s black sheep Symphony No. 7—I couldn’t stop shaking. There’s a lot of good music in Boston, but this was different—on a whole other level. And the audience knew it, felt it. Wasn’t it just what we needed to hear after the bruising election? People were not only cheering but weeping and hugging each other.

The Celebrity Series first brought what many people call “the world’s greatest orchestra” to Boston in 1955, under the direction of the legendary Herbert von Karajan (who was replacing the even more legendary Wilhelm Furtwängler, who had recently died). This latest visit marked the twelfth time the Celebrity Series sponsored the orchestra in Boston (in 1974, still under von Karajan, they played two different programs), and its third time under Rattle, who took over the orchestra from Claudio Abbado in 2002. (The Celebrity Series also presented Rattle once in an all-Sibelius program with his previous group, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.) Many of these concerts, especially the ones directed by Abbado and Rattle, have taken their place among my own happiest musical memories. Rattle is now stepping down to become music director of the London Symphony Orchestra, so this tour marks his last American visit as Berlin’s chief conductor.

Rattle was also a frequent guest of the Boston Symphony Orchestra—so frequent (18 different programs in Boston, including an extraordinary Mahler Seventh in 1991, and several at Tanglewood) he was long rumored to be in line for the directorship of the BSO after Seiji Ozawa. But Berlin got to him first, and he hasn’t appeared with the BSO since he accepted Berlin’s offer.

On this North American tour, which began in New York on November 9, Rattle led two different programs, both of which were scheduled for New York, Toronto, Ann Arbor, and San Francisco, with only one or the other listed for the other tour cities, including (alas) Boston. The one we didn’t get was the fascinating concert, highly praised by the New York Times, in which Rattle combined three post-Mahlerian “Pieces for Orchestra” by Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg into a single musical event (referring to it as “Mahler’s Symphony No. 11”), along with the Brahms Symphony No. 2 (which he triumphantly led in Boston in 2010 a benefit Concert for the Cure). Too bad we couldn’t hear that concert too. Ticket prices for the Boston concert were high, yet by concert time, not a single seat was left to be had.

And what an inspired program.

Éclat, dating from 1965, is a ten minute piece for 15 instruments with a wide range of reverberation times, the longest being the piano (marvelously played here by Majella Stockhausen, a daughter of the celebrated and controversial German avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen). The title means brilliance, sparkle, literally scintillating—setting off sparks. Boulez defined it as “splinter” or “explosion.” So we hear these splintered explosions not only directly but also their reverberating aftershocks.

The instruments are divided into two sections. The main group, here spread across the back of the Symphony Hall stage, features that reverberating piano, along with harp, mandolin, and guitar (plucked instruments that would soon reappear in the Mahler symphony), plus celeste, glockenspiel, vibraphone, and cimbalom (instruments that are struck)—creating a timbre of the most delicate tintinnabulation. The second ensemble, gathered at the front of the stage and richer in color and texture, includes alto flute (played by one of the orchestra’s stars, Emmanuel Pahud), English horn, trumpet, trombone, viola, and cello, with tubular bells. We don’t hear this group until close to the end of the piece.

Rattle led an elegant performance at once ticklish and suspenseful. Whoever is conducting has some say in the order of the parts. Rattle’s sense of direction was impeccable. We could follow these refined, seductive splinters of sound not only aurally but spatially. I’m sure Rattle used Éclat as a kind of X-ray or reduction or distillation of the massive yet sometimes also delicately chamber-music-like Mahler that immediately followed it.

What a strange and wondrous symphony, the Seventh—maybe Mahler’s most neglected and misunderstood. The opening Allegro risoluto (fast and resolved) actually begins with a slow introduction marked Adagio. Resolute marches alternate with swooning dance music. It’s a world of conflicting passions—or conflict and passion—in radically different time zones (Rattle’s slow passages didn’t feel slow, but other, a different order of experience), almost hallucinogenic, both out in the world and out of the world.

This long first movement is followed by three movements of dark and eerie magic. Mahler called the second movement Nachtmusik I (Night Music I), and said it was inspired by Rembrandt’s famous painting The Night Watch, in which brilliantly lit figures emerge out of an amorphous darkness, with Mahler’s inevitable cow bells yearning for pastoral innocence in the midst of urban sophistication. Then comes a spectral, spidery Scherzo, marked Schattenhaft (Shadowy)—part carnival, part funeral, sometimes hard to tell which is which, and ending on the brink of total disintegration. After which comes a second Nachtmusik (Andante amoroso)—an enchanted, insinuating serenade, both sentimental and sinister, featuring a guitar and a mandolin.

The Rondo-Finale, with its endlessly recurring theme, is often a sticking point for people who especially like the three middle movements. It can seem like a tacked on happy ending that’s more insistent than truly happy. But Rattle and the orchestra made it seem like the inevitable response to the shadow world from which it arose—a conclusion not merely convincing but cathartic. We could actually hear the instruments laugh.

The first thing you couldn’t help noticing in this performance was the gorgeous playing. The sound of the horn in the solo at the beginning was burnished and round, almost plush, big but not “loud,” not sticking out but part of the weave. And there were no holes, no lesser players. Every wind instrument (not just Pahud’s flute) “sounded,” shone forth, distinctly individual (one of the glories of the Berlin Phil is that it’s a team of star players). Radiant solos surfaced from the first violin, principal viola, oboe. The timpanist was always expressive—whether ominous or forthright—and never too loud. The basses “spoke.” And because Rattle divides the two violin sections antiphonally (as James Levine did when he took over the BSO), there was a spaciousness to the sound, so everything came through with uncanny clarity.

The night before at Symphony Hall, Andris Nelsons led the BSO in a muddy, sluggish Brahms First Piano Concerto with the wayward Hélène Grimaud and a sharper, tighter Brahms First Symphony. But compared to the Berlin Phil’s three-dimensional depth of sound—layers of sound—the BSO Brahms symphony was like a good photograph, crisp and detailed, but flat. In the Mahler, with first and second violins playing very different music, you could—as in the Boulez—actually follow the themes across and around the stage. Rattle is a master of dynamics, so there were always subtle gradations in volume. Big explosions. Little whispers. I wrote in the margin of my program: “Direction! Definition! Dimension!”

And so that last movement, surviving the conflict of the first movement and the haunted, positively spooky middle movements, was a tremendous release into a world of pure joy. That recurring rondo theme and those tingling “Turkish” marches (parodying Mozart?), were so ravishing you welcomed each happy return, each even more heartfelt and joyous than the last. Rattle’s ability to convey—to give in to—Mahler’s complex and sometimes warring nuances allowed him to understand this finale as the only possible resolution to the whole symphony—inexorably pulsing and chiming to an overwhelming, unstoppable climax (the brass carillons now echoing the similar chiming in Éclat). Not sentimental. All that joy here completely earned.

* * *

On the way home that night, I started to catalogue what else I’d ever heard on this level of music-making. These are the things that popped into my mind, in roughly their order of popping:

1. The Budapest String Quartet playing Mozart, Haydn, and Schubert at Jordan Hall (I could only get stage seats so was forced to sit on the stage with the quartet—what a sacrifice!).

2. Sarah Caldwell’s illuminating production of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, her ecstatic Charpentier Louise (making full use of Boston’s Cyclorama), and a shivery Janáček Makropoulos Case with the mesmerizing Anja Silja.

3. Maria Callas at Symphony Hall, her only Boston appearance.

4. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s heartbreaking embodiments of Berlioz’s Dido and John Harbison’s Myrtle Wilson at the Met and Debussy’s Mélisande with the BSO.

5. The game-changing insights and thrilling teamwork in all the Peter Sellars/Craig Smith productions, especially Handel’s Saul and Giulio Cesare. 

6. The shattering Schubert Winterreise sung by Mitsuko Shirai accompanied by Hartmut Höll at Harvard’s Houghton Library (how different from Ian Bostridge’s bizarrely self-involved recent performance at Jordan Hall, in spite of  Thomas Adès’s deeply felt accompaniment).

7. Compelling, incandescent recitals by three very different and idiosyncratic pianists: Annie Fischer, Dubravka Tomsic, and Russell Sherman.

8. Claudio Abbado’s spiritually exalting Mahler Resurrection Symphony with the BSO, and his heart-pounding Beethoven Fifth and Sixth Symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic.

9. Pierre Boulez’s electrifying Stravinsky Sacre du Printemps with the London Symphony Orchestra and Mahler Third and Sixth Symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic.

10. James Levine’s revelatory Beethoven/Schoenberg concerts with the BSO, especially the one which Levine both began and ended with the string orchestra version of Beethoven’s Große Fuge—almost more modern than Schoenberg.

And I haven’t mentioned the bliss to be alive while George Balanchine (the modern creative artist closest in scope to Shakespeare) was actively creating his great ballets for the mind-boggling dancers at the New York City Ballet—choreography that let you both see and feel the music, musical masterworks you couldn’t easily hear anywhere else.

In these grim times, it seems more important than ever to keep these great moments in memory. But it’s also important to turn our heads in the opposite direction, to the future. A number of gifted younger musicians that fill me with real hope—conductors like Vladimir Jurowski and Francois Xavier Roth, whose musical instincts (not just technique) run very deep, or counter-tenor Philippe Jaroussky (you say Jurowski and I say Jaroussky!). And even the New York City Ballet seems to be entering a new golden age of profoundly musical young dancers.

In Boston, musical life continues on its usual high level. The young Odyssey Opera is giving Boston audiences a chance to hear rarely performed operas in skillfully staged and musically incisive productions, though audience support has favored its concert performances of grand opera over its fully staged works, for which the turnout, despite enthusiastic reviews, has been dismayingly sparse. Smaller companies like Guerilla Opera continue to thrive by presenting imaginative, low budget productions of new works. A small company called Commonwealth Lyric Theater, with a core audience of Russian émigrés, presented one of the most thrilling productions of the year, nothing less than Mussorgsky’s epic Boris Godunov.

We still have exciting concerts led by Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic and Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestras. And strong performances of both early and new music. But although the BSO is in very good shape technically (we still have James Levine to thank for rescuing the orchestra from the slack after 29 years of Seiji Ozawa), I wish I could be more confident about the orchestra’s future under Andris Nelsons. When I hear music-making on the level that Rattle and the Berlin Phil just provided, I ask why shouldn’t the BSO be performing on that same level? But I don’t see many new ideas coming from Nelsons. Leading a Strauss opera every season, even in superior performances, or recording a Shostakovich or Brahms cycle, don’t seem like exceptional ideas—just playing to Nelsons’s strength, which is a pretty circumscribed area of 19th- and early 20th-century Mittel-European classics. I don’t hear many fresh ideas emerging from his performances, even at their best. Shouldn’t a conductor—a music director—reveal something new, especially about the most familiar works, or what’s the purpose of merely repeating them?

Nelsons’s two weeks of Brahms concertos and symphonies (for possible recording release) were each preceded by the premieres of newly commissioned short work by younger composers. Eric Nathan’s the space of a door was a lively overture without a truly distinctive profile. I preferred Timo Andres’s cheekier Everything Happens So Much, an 11-minute riff on a basic but tuneful arpeggio that offers particularly stellar moments for a pair of piccolos.

The great Brahms moment was acting principal cellist Martha Babcock’s cello solo in the slow movement of the Second Piano Concerto to a consoling melody Brahms would later use again in his song “Immer leise wird mein Schlummer” (My sleep grows ever quieter). A beautifully produced insert into the program book announced the death of Jules Eskin, the BSO’s principal cellist for 53 years. Babcock’s soulful lullaby was clearly informed by the death of her longtime colleague. The next lines of the song are “only my grief, like a veil, lies trembling over me.” During the curtain call, she received a rapturous ovation.

The best news coming from the BSO is the appointment of the British triple threat composer/conductor/pianist Thomas Adès as “artistic partner.” For years Jeremy Eichler, the Boston Globe’s chief classical music critic, has been agitating for the BSO to acquire a composer-in-residence, someone who could advise the orchestra about contemporary works, and actually produce some. Adès, whose two operas—Powder Her Face and The Tempest—are already known commodities, has already led some memorable BSO concerts, which have included some of his own music. An inspired choice.

He’s already proven his worth this season in a remarkable week of performances. After partnering Bostridge in Winterreise (a sold-out concert co-sponsored by the BSO and the Celebrity Series), he appeared in all three of his capacities in a remarkable program with the BSO Chamber Players. As pianist, he participated in his own moving “Court Studies from The Tempest,” his arrangement of two Purcell songs (probably not by Purcell) written for a production of The Tempest (with the eloquent mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor), and in Schubert’s Trout Quintet, in which he played Schubert’s music while the strings played Schubert’s notes. As conductor, he led Benjamin Britten’s charming early Sinfonietta, Brahms’s too-seldom heard Ophelia Songs (with O’Connor again), and most remarkable, Stravinsky’s Three Shakespeare Songs—in which the singer is accompanied by only three instruments, flute (Elizabeth Rowe), clarinet (William R. Hudgins), and viola (Steven Ansell), proving that even the smallest chamber group can benefit substantially from Adès’s incisive, sensitive, and witty shaping.

Within a week, he was back in front of the BSO leading moving and personal versions of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem and Sibelius’s last major orchestral work, the mysterious tone poem Tapiola—a piece that seems a kind of final word of farewell by the great Finnish composer, even though he lived more than 30 years after he completed it. Adès ended that program with the first Boston performance of his own recent masterwork, Totentanz (Dance of Death), inspired by a 15th-century frieze In Lübeck that was destroyed by allied bombing during the Second World War. The two impressive singers were British baritone Mark Stone, as the grim reaper, and Dutch mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn as all of his victims, from Pope and Emperor to an infant. Frightening and tender, it was consistently engrossing and made an indelible impression. Those more adventurous members of the audience who remained after intermission seemed very glad they did. Will more people stay the next time?