Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Simon Rattle Elicits Mind-Shattering Reverberations from the Berlin Philharmonic

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, the Berlin Philharmonic (listed in the program book with its “native name,” “Berliner Philharmoniker”), led by Artistic Director Simon Rattle, gave the first of two concerts presented by the San Francisco Symphony. Performed without intermission, the program consisted primarily of Gustav Mahler’s 1905 seventh symphony in E minor. This was preceded by a performance of Pierre Boulez’ “Éclat,” which lasted less than ten minutes.

There is so much originality to each of Mahler’s symphonies that it is worth observing that the seventh is one of the few that revisits an earlier plan, the five-movement architecture of the fifth symphony in C-sharp minor, which Mahler completed in 1902. The structure is best described by beginning in the center and working out to the surroundings. At the core of the fifth symphony is its longest single movement, a Scherzo in D major. It is preceded by two funeral marches, the first, in C-sharp minor, marked explicitly as such, and the second in F minor, the key of a secondary theme in the first movement. On the other side the Scherzo is followed by what amounts to an “introduction and allegro,” a serene Adagietto in F major scored only for strings and harp followed by an aggressive D major Rondo.

By contrast, the core of the seventh symphony is the shortest single movement; but it is also a Scherzo, this time in D minor. It is flanked on either side by two “Nachtmusik” (night music) movements, the first a funeral march alternating between C major and C minor and the second a serenade (Andante amoroso), complete with a guitar and a mandolin, in F major. The funeral march is preceded by another funeral march (as in the opening two movements of the fifth), beginning in B minor before establishing itself in E minor. At the other end is another Rondo, this time in C major.

The reader will have noticed by now that, while there is a stable symmetry to the “building blocks,” there is considerable peregrination of the tonal center in both symphonies, almost as if Mahler’s approach to dominant-tonic cadences was a product of some musical variant of stream-of-consciousness writing. The fact is that the seventh is ultimately a highly dissonant symphony, not so much in the sense of the use of intervals (such as the tritone) that are ambiguous with respect to any tonal center but rather in the extent to which even the most attentive listener is seriously challenged to bring “sensory order” to the sounds unfolding before the ears.

The challenge is all the greater because this is a score that thrives of superposition. Mahler draws upon the resources of a large orchestra because they allow him to establish multiple centers of activity, often going full throttle at the same time without any clear sense of coordination. (Listening to Mahler does wonders in preparing the mind for encounters with the music of Charles Ives, whose superpositions frequently amounted to free associations gone berserk.) Thus, what was probably most important about last night’s performance was the relationship Rattle had with his ensemble through which the full dissonant qualities of those superpositions could make their respective marks through the clarity with which each of the contributions to any superposition registered. Much of that clarity may have been established through the layout of the players, allowing spatial separation to permit each contributing element to say its piece, so to speak. However, it was clear that Rattle’s meticulous approach to dynamic levels was also a major factor, even if its most salient property was the ability to take any loud passage and enable it to build to something louder.

All this amounts to the fact that the Mahler seventh is yet another example of music whose demands currently reach far beyond the capabilities of even the best of today’s audio capture and mixing technologies. This is not to dismiss the value of recordings. The thematic lexicon of this symphony is so far-reaching that the attentive listener will definitely benefit from a recording, even if it is only to establish familiarity with the full breadth of that lexicon. However, the music itself resides only in the physical-spatial realization of the structures that emerge as those lexemes assemble themselves into rich full-ensemble structures. In that respect the assembly that Rattle presented to last night’s Davies audience was definitely one for the books, even for those who thought they already “knew it all” by virtue of the rich Mahler repertoire of our own San Francisco Symphony.

If the concept of structure based on superposition was critical to how mind makes sense out of Mahler’s seventh, then “Éclat” could not have been a better selection as an “overture” to precede the symphony. It is far more abstract in both concept and execution; but it still served as an excellent (albeit unconventional) “warm-up” for the attentive listener. The piece, composed in 1965 (60 years after the Mahler symphony), is scored for fifteen instruments, each of which has different reverberation properties. One might thus call the piece an abstract study in attack and decay and of the sonorities that emerge when different decay patterns are superposed. In other words superposition is as crucial a structural element in “Éclat” as it is in the Mahler seventh, even if the two pieces are radically different in just about every other structural property.

Here, again, spatial orientation was crucial to sorting out the superpositions that emerged from Boulez’ score. Front and center were a viola (Máté Szücs) and cello (Bruno Delepelaire), the bowed instruments. Behind them were the “blown” instruments, alto flute (Emmanuel Pahud), cor anglais (Dominik Wollenweber), trumpet (Gabor Tarkövi) and trombone (Olaf Ott); and behind them were two plucked strings, mandolin (Detlef Tewes) and guitar (Matthew Hunter). Along the left side were the “two-hand” instruments, harp (Marie-Pierre Langlamet), celesta (Holger Groschopp), piano (Majella Stockhausen), cimbalom (Luigi Gaggero), vibraphone (Simon Rössler), and glockenspiel (Franz Schindlbeck). The only other percussion was provided by Jan Schlichte playing tubular bells.

Through this layout, the attentive listener was readily aware of each attack point and its related decay. Rattle saw his job at the podium as one of scheduling the attack points, so to speak, although there were occasional cadenza-like passages, particularly for the piano, during which Rattle simply allowed time to run its own course. This did not allow very much leverage for expressiveness, but it was probably what Boulez wanted. Ultimately, “Éclat” is an “étude” for both performers and listeners. In the former case it demands meticulous coordination, without which the acoustic effects Boulez wished to achieve would not emerge. For the latter the piece amounts to an exercise in listening to sonorous qualities for their own sake; and, given the brevity of the piece, it is an exercise that can be very rewarding, particularly when Rattle and his colleagues had summoned such focused effort to bring Boulez envisaged auditory qualities to fruition. Furthermore, to the extent to which those sonorous qualities involve the intimate relations between sounds of all dynamic levels and silence, Boulez’ étude definitely does much to prepare even the most informed listener for the experience of Mahler’s seventh symphony.

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