The Berlin Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle at Carnegie Hall: Debussy, Dvořák, Schoenberg, Elgar, Bruckner, Wolf, and Mahler

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Anton Bruckner

Anton Bruckner

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle, Music Director and Conductor

I. Thursday, Feb 23, 2012 | 8 PM

Debussy – Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1891-94)
Dvořák – The Golden Spinning-Wheel, Op. 109 (1896)
Schoenberg – Verklärte Nacht (1899, orch. 1917, rev. 1943)
Elgar – “Enigma” Variations, Op. 36 (1898-99)

II. Friday, Feb 24, 2012 | 8 PM

Bruckner – Symphony No. 9 (1887-96, new critical edition edited by Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs, based on the editions of Alfred Orel and Leopold Nowak; completed performance edition of the fourth movement by Samale-Phillips-Cohrs-Mazzuca, 1983-2011, premiere 1991)

III. Saturday, Feb 25, 2012 | 8 PM

Camilla Tilling, Soprano
Bernarda Fink, Mezzo-Soprano
Westminster Symphonic Choir
Joe Miller, Conductor

Wolf – “Frühlingschor” from Manuel Venegas (1897)
Wolf – “Elfenlied” (1889-91)
Wolf – “Der Feuerreiter” (1888, orch. 1892)
Mahler – Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection” (1888-94, rev. 1903)


Revised July 3, 2020.

A U.S. tour by one of the great European orchestras is a a costly endeavor—for everyone concerned—and, even if it is a biennial occurrence, it should be nothing less than an important event, especially in New York. I find it a severe disappointment when an orchestra offers routine programming on tour, no matter how well it shows off their glories. These are missed opportunities. The Berlin Philharmonic and their Director, Sir Simon Rattle, therefore deserve our thanks for sticking with the “curated” programming which made their last visit to Carnegie Hall such a memorable esperience. Back then, they combined a cycle of Brahms symphonies with works by Arnold Schoenberg. This year they have taken a step forward and a step back, narrowing their range, to explore the origins of the modern in music in the 1890s. On the way, they have also managed to include some of Sir Simon’s signature repertoire in Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations and Mahler’s Second Symphony, both among the works with which he made his reputation early in his career.


I. Debussy, Dvořák, Schoenberg, Elgar

The program notes by composer Chris Cerrone and the eminent authority on twentieth century music and horror fiction, Jack Sullivan—considerably better than what we have become accustomed to at Carnegie Hall in recent years—lay this argument out for our consideration. As excellent as these notes are, I have a point or two to make in regard to Professor Sullivan’s perceptive views on the specific relation of some of these works to the modern. His notes on the four story-telling pieces of the first evening follow the traditional opinion that Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is a truly revolutionary work, as Pierre Boulez says in the paragraph quoted in his note. I shouldn’t doubt that by any means, nor the transitional nature of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, but it is worth pointing out that, although Dvořák wrote The Golden Spinning Wheel as something of a re-immersion in the culture of his homeland after his unhappy three-year sojourn in New York, his injunction to American composers about the importance of delving into folk-traditions, above all, those of the Negro Spiritual, remained gospel for many American composers for at least two generations, even for Aaron Copland, who began his career in a Schoenbergian vein. In Europe the nationalistic fascination with folk traditions soon fell out of fashion, although Sibelius and Szymanowski kept it alive through the 1930s in Finland and Poland and Bartók reinvented it in a way truly characteristic of the twentieth century. Meanwhile, in the United States, it became a second modernist path, parallel to Schoenberg’s, favored especially by composers of leftist views.

Elgar presents yet another paradox, inasmuch as the compositional style of the “Enigma” Variations seems to us in retrospect rather conservative in comparison with Mahler and certainly with Schoenberg during the same years, and, as he increasingly enrobed himself in the mantle of conservatism in his later career. But only compare the “Enigma” variations to Parry’s Symphonic Variations and Stanford’s excellent but—unfortunately—aptly named Concert Variations on an English Theme (“Down among the Dead Men”), both of which joined it on a program at the 2007 Bard Music Festival, and you will realize how fresh and advanced Elgar’s invention actually was in its time and place. Beyond that, in creating a portrait of himself through the perceptions of fourteen friends, as Diana McVeagh observed in her 2007 paper at the Festival, he created a composition which, in its relativism, was psychologically entirely of the twentieth century, and, at its spiritual core, much more advanced than Mahler’s Second Symphony, which, like even later works of Mahler’s, was haunted by a nostalgia for the heyday of Romanticism in the days of the von Arnims. By contrast, Elgar’s nostalgia was entirely internal and contained within his own life.

In this way Elgar, like his almost exact contemporary, Joseph Conrad, an Englishman by choice, was a pioneer of modern consciousness, if not compositional technique. Both men set a high value on tradition, and they both were able to innovate most powerfully from within it. Professor Sullivan, by taking his cue from a 1935 statement by Tovey and a remark by Shaw, made in 1920, when Elgar’s music was already well on its way out of fashion, underestimates the composer’s originality somewhat. English musical taste has always been prone to trends, and Elgar was no exception. However, Sullivan closed his discussion of the “Enigma” Variations with another quotation from Shaw, “The ‘Enigma’ Variations took away your breath. The respiration induced by their compositions was perfectly regular and occasionally perfectly audible.” In any case, Sir Simon’s intensely Romantic interpretation of the Mahler Second did not change my opinion that it is fundamentally a less advanced, more backward-looking work than the “Enigma” Variations. Nor is it any better. Mahler wrote nothing in any way superior to Elgar’s First or Second Symphonies, the Violin and Cello Concertos, and, above all, The Dream of Gerontius.

At one point I heard a rumor that the Berlin Philharmonic and Sir Simon decided to “pour it on a bit” for the New York audience. That was certainly in evidence in the Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune, which I thought the least successful of the visit’s performances. This is of course surprising given Sir Simon’s reputation as an interpreter of Debussy. His 2010-11 Pelléas et Mélisande at the Met last year was a triumph by all accounts, and we have two enthusiastic reviews of it in this publication. The richness and density of sound emerging from the Berlin Philharmonic was overwhelming, and not in a felicitous way. This performance could naturally be taken as a vehicle for the orchestra’s illustrious principle flutist, Emmanuel Pahud, but the cloying orchestral sound actually diminished the effect of his luxuriant playing. Like waves of over-creamed lobster bisque, the sound obscured the work’s drama and the clarity of its structure. Although this overblown virtuosity never marred the orchestra’s Brahms cycle, it is reasonable enough to ascribe this false step as getting used to Carnegie after a two-year absence and misplaced enthusiasm, for there can be no doubt that Sir Simon is an enthusiast.

Excess marred Dvořák’s “The Golden Spinning Wheel” as well, but it did less damage to the music. In his note, Jack Sullivan pointed out that Rattle is a champion of Dvořák’s tone poems, which are among the compser’s lesser-known works, at least outside of the Czech Republic, and often includes them in his programs. If the textures were too rich, the rubati a bit too obvious, and the drama rather exaggerated, one could enjoy the virtuosity of the orchestra for its own sake and feel grateful to Sir Simon for espousing the works. Nonetheless, native Czech conductors traditionally play the music of their national composer with restraint, clearly defined phrasing, a disciplined pace, and clean, open textures. In Talich’s historic performance with the Czech Philharmonic one can appreciate the flow and structure of the tone poem more readily and really feel how happy Dvořák was to be back in his home country, working with native material, in this case, an extremely gory folk-tale, as Professor Sullivan gleefully indicates in his note.

After the break, the performance of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht was even more over-the-top. I have never heard any performance of it come close in Romantic intensity, but this seemed absolutely right for the work. For me, it has never been so convincing, involving, and actually moving.

The “Enigma” Variations was full of color, dramatic contrasts of tempo and dynamics, and vividly expressed feeling. Sir Simon’s vast color palette and emotional engagement seemed basically English, but one never forgot that one was hearing it played by a German orchestra. This is only a salutary reminder of how much Elgar learned from German music. One of his primary concerns was to reconcile Brahms and Wagner and to combine their legacies in his own style. What’s more, Elgar enjoyed many of his early successes in Germany, before he was accepted in England, and he harbored a fondness for the country. On the other hand, the performance was only slightly less over-the-top than the Schoenberg, and I’m not sure Sir Edward, if he were to hear it, would have felt comfortable with it. As a self-made man from a humble provincial background, Elgar was especially sensitive to vulgarity, and I believe he would have found the display and the post-Princess-Di emotivity of this performance decidedly vulgar, but that doesn’t put Sir Simon in the wrong. (Some of Sir Edward’s own more commercial efforts, like The Crown of India, are really quite vulgar.) In this context, Prof. Sullivan’s quote from Tovey is especially apt: “The vulgarest and most nouveau-riche trait in all connoisseurship is the fear of vulgarity.”


II. Bruckner

I could find no hint in Chris Cerrone’s program notes that Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony was to be presented as precursor of modern music, but of course New Yorkers will remember Franz Welser-Möst’s not entirely convincing attempt to pair Bruckner with John Adams, and in this way to make the humble church organist a precusor of post-modernism. What is new, or relatively new, is the presentation of the Ninth with its fourth movement, a rarity with major orchestras. Bruckner died before he could complete the finale of his last symphony, and it was premiered posthumously in 1903 in a version which included only the three completed movements. It was said that the work was complete in itself in only three movements, and that it was impossible to surpass the grandeur and profundity of the closing slow movement. It was said that Bruckner, uncertain about a fourth movement, made only a few slight sketches. In fact over 440 pages of sketches and score survive today. As Bruckner was dying, admirers came to pay their last respects and some also to acquire something to remember him by. His housekeeper, who had seen him give pages of manuscripts to visitors, took over the distribution (or theft) of these memorabilia. In this way many of Bruckner’s sketches for the last movement disappeared. Some of these have come to light in recent years.

There now are at least eight or nine different completions of the finale which can be considered as separate versions, rather than as ongoing revisions of the work of a particular practitioner or groups of them. The Berlin Philharmonic played the latest (2011) revision of what is known as the “SPCM” version,1 which they call a “reconstruction.” Their premise is that the surviving sketches and continuous passages provide enough material for a performance. By contrast, William Carragan, the author of another version of the finale, refuses to call his work a reconstruction, but a completion, since too much of the music is his own composition. The present series of performances by the Berlin Philharmonic and a recording, which is due to be released by EMI in May, are intended to establish among the public that Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony is indeed a four-movement work and that the SPCM version is the preeminent version. At the very least, the symphony should be performed often with some completed version of the fourth movement. This idea is not entirely new, since it has not been that rare an occurrence to hear the Ninth performed with the Te Deum as its last movement. Of course Bruckner always wrote four-movement symphonies, as Beethoven and Brahms did, and there is no reason to assume that he decided to alter his formula, other than for the reason that he was too sick in those final months to complete it. The only justification for the three-movement version is that we are used to it, and it is indeed the most satisfying torso in the history of music.

The showiness of the first concert gave me some misgivings about how Sir Simon would approach a work like the Bruckner Ninth. To my great relief, he left his enthusiastic gestures of the first evening aside and simply got down to business in a straightforward way. In the first movement, his tempi were broad, and the textures extremely rich. He brought more color and variety of texture to his Bruckner than one usually hears, but nothing got in the way of the shape of the movement and its solemn forward progress. The Berlin Philharmonic was not about to shed its veil of luxury, but the attacks of its string section had a weight and body that can be as effective as those of orchestras with a more visceral bite to their playing. Rattle’s concept of the movement was unashamedly vast, and he projected the feeling of terror in the music with singular intensity. His approach didn’t put one in mind of any specific spiritual relation to the symphony: it was above all dramatic and emotive, but by no means superficial. With all the expression he poured into each phrase and his full exploitation of pauses, he maintained a sense of the flow, shape, and structure of the movement—and this was true of all four movements. Brucknerians know the dichotomy between the two basic approaches to the symphonies: on the one hand, the free, Romantic manner that wrings every bit of expression out of each phrase, exemplified perhaps by Barenboim, and the clearly limned, steadily paced objectivity of a Blomstedt—which is what usually works best. Rattle managed to combine them in a potentially hazardous, but in this case quite successful way. Ultimately I was perhaps not so much shaken by his performance as stirred.

After an appropriately monumental and fiercely energetic scherzo, enhanced by the glowing timbre of the Berlin brass, Sir Simon led the orchestra into the slow movement at a somewhat more active pace than customary. He clearly wanted to prevent his audience from settling into the movement as Bruckner’s final elegiac statement and the end of the symphony. He opted for a discreet acceleration that would not jar our sense of the solemnity of the music, but which hinted that the third movement was headed beyond itself. Conditioning has as strong an effect on music-lovers as it does on laboratory animals. Soon I became immersed in the sense of finality I have experienced over several decades with the symphony. I attribute this to the power of musical memory rather than Sir Simon, although he did, after that first section, lapse into a more familiar breadth of the utmost gravity. The movement  proceeded on to the end in this way. Color and texture were in the foreground of the orchestral balances, overpowering the pointing of any particular details. In this way the monumental upward and downward crossing phrases in the brass were largely blent into the massive shimmering tremolo of the strings. This was a powerful reading of some of the greatest music that exists, and I could find nothing lacking in it.

It is worth noting that John Phillips, in his talk following the concert, said most emphatically that he shares the common opinion that the slow movement was intended as Bruckner’s farewell to life. However, for the devout Christian Bruckner still was, there is more to come. (There was once an argument that Bruckner suffered a loss of faith while he was at work on the symphony—which has been refuted—in which case the  symphony’s conclusion with the slow movement might have a powerful, disturbing point.) However, Bruckner went on to write, but not finish, his customary finale—not a triumphant vision of God and the heavenly hosts, but, according to Phillips, the struggles of the soul in Purgatory, as it progresses towards its divine goal. Bruckner left behind no statement to this effect, but, as an interpretation of the existing fragments in the form Mazzuca, Samale, Cohrs, and Philips have pieced them together, it is reasonable. A struggle between more optimistic, forward-moving passages and darker, troubled bars is prominent through much of the music. Sir Simon believes strongly in the merits of the SPCM completion, and this conviction was constantly with him throughout. In its shifting atmosphere and moods it was totally absorbing. However, there did seem to be something missing. A great deal of the movement seemed to consist of transitional passages, and the grand thematic statements that consistently form the pillars of Bruckner’s constructions were a long time coming and rather scarce at that. If one were to accept the SPCM completion as Bruckner’s music, it would mean that he was abandoning  to some extent the coherent logic, which he strengthened and refined throughout his career, in favor of a more impressionistic method of composition. I can’t say that this is what might have led Sir Simon to emphasize this quality in the slow movement, as I mentioned, because it is also consistent with Sir Simon’s treatment of orchestral texture in general, but there is no doubt that he’s an effective ambassador for the SPCM version to the larger public. The overall effect was powerful and moving, if not fully convincing.

The consensus among the Brucknerians who gathered for John Phillips’ talk was that all of the completions have something good to offer, and there was general delight that more than one solution is available. Whether you loved the SPCM version or hated it or something in between, you should know the Carragan completion, now available on the Profil label in an excellent live performance from the Ebrach Musiksommer by the Philharmonie Festiva under Gerd Schaller. William Carragan‘s version2 (full disclosure: we are friends) is strong in areas where the SPCM is lacking. Its structure is coherent and clearly marked; the thematic statements are in the right place; and they are developed in a logical way—which is not to say that the SPCM version does not have its own strengths—above all, an emotional effect which resonates convincingly with the familiar completed movements. Both the Schaller recording and the forthcoming Rattle are musts for serious Brucknerians, and there are others as well, including that of Peter Jan Marthé, who “channeled” his from Bruckner himself. For these see John F. Berky’s page about this on the invaluable Anton Bruckner website he maintains.


III. Mahler

The first half of the program consisted of three short choruses and songs by Hugo Wolf, who, as Mahler’s contemporary, was a classmate at the Vienna Conservatory and a friend. At the end of his short life, Wolf, in the final stages of his syphilitic madness, believed that he, and not Mahler had been appointed director of the Vienna State Opera. The first of these, “Frühlingschor,” he wrote for Manuel Venegas (1897), his second opera, which he never finished. “Elfenlied” (1889-91) is a setting of a German translation of “You spotted snakes,” sung by a fairy chorus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The third is an orchestration of one of Wolf’s most famous songs, “Der Feuerreiter” (1888, orch. 1892), a setting of Eduard Mörike’s poem about a mad horseman who rides to his destruction in a burning mill. In the 1890s Wolf expanded a number of his songs for orchestra in the hope of reaching a larger audience. Mahler’s Second Symphony incorporates songs and choruses, which he has raised to the scale of full symphonic movements, meanwhile introducing more intimate elements into the symphonic tradition established by Beethoven’s Ninth. Mahler of course composed songs and song cycles for piano and for orchestra as well, achieving a symphonic work, Das Lied von der Erde, in that way. Wolf’s efforts remain within the limits of their small-scale forms. The Berlin Philharmonic’s support was sumptuous, and Swedish soprano Camilla Tilling was a charming presence who interpreted her brief part in the “Elfenlied” with taste and a very attractive bright voice, which seemed a trifle thin against the orchestra. Later, in the Mahler, her voice filled out very nicely.

Sir Simon’s Mahler Second, as I have mentioned, is well-known from his frequent performances of the work and his highly acclaimed recordings, both at the beginning of his career and in recent years. It is a visceral interpretation, dramatic, and enormous in scale, sonically embodied by the impressive weight and mass of the Berlin strings. Their violins are so rich in sound that the yearning, dreamy second subject of the first movement never approached the transparency one hears from most orchestras. Rather than thin down their sound for an other-wordly effect, they enriched their timbre with an amazingly complex array of overtones and nuances of color. The beauty of this varied sound was quite astonishing.3 Rattle’s expansive gestures and pregnant pauses were all the more coherent because of his long familiarity with the work. He seemed to be able to let Mahler’s phrases take as long as they needed to without distracting his listeners from the path of the composition. Sir Simon’s reading of the Second is most solidly grounded on earth and in human emotions. There is no danger of it floating away to the angels. With his rich gamut of dynamics, color, and expression, I found I became especially conscious of Mahler as a craftsman: deeply understanding the capabilities of the orchestra as an accomplished conductor, he approached this extremely ambitious work with a fully conscious awareness of technique and effect. The Westminster Symphonic Choir sang magnificently under Joe Miller’s direction, and Camilla Tilling and mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink as well. Sir Simon’s ability to work with singers in phrasing and expression, and to produce just the right level of orchestral sound without making obvious decrescendi is one of his most effective skills. If I have been more moved by other performances of Mahler’s Second, for example, Haitink’s more understated one at Tanglewood a few years ago, I was powerfully impressed by this one, and my respect for Mahler and my appreciation of his writing was all the stronger for hearing it.

Rattle’s interpretation presented the Second more as a last gasp of Romanticism than as an incipiently modern work, a creation very much in line with Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. It might have been enlightening to hear the two works on the same program. While it is by no means conservative, it remains within the bounds of the late-nineteenth century symphony, and it is nostaglic in its stylistic models and its poetic and philosophical sources. (Of course the same is true of the “Enigma” Variations, which is advanced only in the composer’s philosophical premises—which is not something he would have articulated. His Englishness may account for some of its relativism.) In any case, it is unlikely that Sir Simon programmed the Mahler to make a point. While the “curated” programming I praised at the beginning lends susbstance to the Berlin Philharmonic’s micro-season at Carnegie, it should not get in the way of true music-making. In spite of the excesses I have mentioned, the music-making over these three evenings was indeed plentiful and true.

  1. named after its four contributors. Giuseppe Mazzuca began the project. Nicola Samale continued to work on it, beginning in 1983. Then Bejamin Gunnar-Cohrs and John Phillips carried on the work over multiple revisions.
  2. a 2010 revision of a project begun in 1979, orchestrated in the the early 1980s, and revised in 2003 and 2006. Maestro Schaller has recorded for Profil two versions of his own completion. See Carragan’s lucid discussion of the issues inherent in such a completion, Ground Rules for the Completion of a Great Work.
  3. This kind of “open” string sound was not characteristic of the orchestra in the days of Karajan and Abbado. Ironically, another conductor who cultivates this kind of sound today is Christian Thielemann, who is no friend of Sir Simon’s.
About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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