Thursday, November 24, 2016

Simon Rattle Delivers an Exciting Account of Music on Either Side of Mahler

Last night the Berlin Philharmonic returned to Davies Symphony Hall to give the second of two concerts presented by the San Francisco Symphony, again with Artistic Director Simon Rattle on the podium. Rattle had used his first program to serve up what may well have been one of the most perceptive and emotionally visceral accounts of Gustav Mahler’s 1905 seventh symphony that Davies had ever experienced. Therefore, he decided to follow this performance by expanding on the context of that symphony, considering what would follow during the first half and then devoting the second half to a composer whose music had set the context for Mahler, Johannes Brahms.

Rattle introduced the evening with a few remarks about how Mahler had brought a sense of finality to the way in which he composed his symphonies. It was hard to see how anyone could continue along that path, and Rattle as much as suggested that a sharp departure from the path was inevitable. That new trail was first blazed by Arnold Schoenberg, who would subsequently be joined in his efforts by his two best-known students, Anton Webern and Alban Berg.

Rattle thus organized the first half of the evening to follow some of the early steps along that trail, offering one work by each of these three composers. The contributions by both Schoenberg and Webern were composed in 1909. Mahler was still alive at the time and may even have had the opportunity to listen to them. The first was Schoenberg’s Opus 16 set of five orchestral pieces, followed by Webern’s Opus 6 set of six orchestral pieces, which he subsequently revised for somewhat reduced resources in 1928. (Rattle conducted the 1928 version last night.) The final offering was Alban Berg’s Opus 6 set of three orchestral pieces, composed in 1915 and revised in 1929. (Rattle again presented the latter version.)

Note that none of these compositions has a descriptive title. In Webern’s case this was also true of the pieces themselves, which were identified only by tempo markings. Schoenberg only provided titles at the urging of his publisher. He wrote in his diary, “the titles which I may provide give nothing away, because some of them are very obscure and others highly technical.” He then listed his titles in his diary as follows:
  1. Premonitions (everyone has those)
  2. The Past (everyone has that, too)
  3. Chord-Colors (technical)
  4. Peripetia (general enough, I think)
  5. The Obbligato (perhaps better the “fully developed” or the “endless”) Recitative
Berg, on the other hand, chose to label his pieces according to their structural forms: prelude, round dances, and march.

It is interesting to consider Schoenberg’s sense of humor in his diary entry, since one usually thinks of him having only a serious side. There is also the possibility that he may have been thinking of possible titles for the sorts of paintings being created by some of his contemporaries, such as Oskar Kokoschka or Egon Schiele. Think, also, of the playfulness behind ending the set with a recitative, which usually serves an introductory function.

The most fascinating of the pieces, however, was the middle one, whose title was eventually reduced to just “Colors.” Schoenberg’s original idea was to take a single chord as the basis for a series of “progressions” that would involve only changes in sonority, enabled through gradually shifting instrumentation. This is how the piece begins; and, while Schoenberg could not quite follow through with his idea for the full duration, it remains one of his most intriguing experiments in his quest for new approaches to making music.

Rattle chose to play all fourteen of these pieces without interruption, politely asking to audience to hold applause until the last of the Berg pieces. Rattle urged the audience to think of the experience as Mahler’s eleventh symphony in fourteen short movements. This was a bold approach to presentation, particularly since each composer brought his own highly personal sense of expressive rhetoric to his set of pieces. However, if we return to that metaphor of trailblazing, Rattle’s approach allowed the listener to appreciate the extent to which the path departing from Mahler was one that took several rather extreme turns, often in unexpected directions.

It is also worth nothing that, while an entire century has elapsed, these pieces still confront even the most sympathetic listener with highly alien qualities. Continuing with the metaphor, one might almost say that the trailblazers never managed to find their way out of the woods. Yet the woods themselves continue to fascinate, even when that fascination is shaded with a distinctive frisson of terror. Each of the three composers had his own way of summoning up orchestral sonorities that were nothing short of ferocious, and Berg even went as far as to recall those sinister hammer blows that make the final movement of Mahler’s sixth symphony more intense than any contemporary horror movie. However, because Rattle was so fearless in taking on the extremes of these composers’ approaches to expressiveness, he could translate those alien qualities into listening experiences that were utterly engaging through the sense of fascination that they aroused. Last night became one of those all-too-rare occasions when the Second Viennese School received not only a fair shake but also an account so compelling as to tweak the desire for further listening.

It would therefore be unfair to say that Brahms was offered up as a “dessert” for those who took the trouble to eat the vegetables of the first half of the program. Schoenberg, after all, was the one who made such a powerful case for Brahms having progressive qualities of his own. Even though Rattle selected the Opus 73 (second) symphony in D major, generally taken as the most amenable of the four symphonies, his approach to interpretation suggested his awareness of Schoenberg’s perspective. Much of this involved appreciation of just how rich was the palette that Brahms used to realize a broad diversity of emotional dispositions. However, Rattle must also be credited with an almost awe-inspiring fearlessness when taking on Brahms at his most energetic. If terror influenced much of the rhetoric of the first half of the program, then it was complemented by joy in the second half. However, that joy was realized through a wild abandon that seemed to go right to the brink of mania without ever actually taking the plunge. This was Brahms to make you sit up and take notice, and Rattle’s interpretation is like to remain burned into the memory of those present for quite some time to come.

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