Davies Hall, San Francisco
The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle, conductor
November 22, 2016
Boulez – Éclat (1965)
Mahler – Symphony No. 7 in E minor (1905)
November 23, 2016
Schoenberg – Five Pieces for Orchestra, Opus 16 (1909)
Webern – Six Pieces for Orchestra, Opus 6 (1909/1928)
Berg – Three Pieces for Orchestra, Opus 6 (1915/1929)
Brahms – Symphony No. 2 in D major, Opus 73 (1877)
It was a tease this time—opening with minimalist Boulez. But it was worth it.
Anyone growing up past mid-century recalls an era when whole portions of the German symphonic experience were seeming property of the Berlin Philharmonic and its legendary conductor, Herbert von Karajan. Put a Berlin Philharmonic LP of Brahms, Strauss, Beethoven or Bruckner on the turntable, and the golden DGG logo virtually guaranteed this orchestra would sound richer, probe more deeply than any other and elicit sheer heft without parallel. No string or brass section would glow as beautifully or emit more power. If that didn’t convey authority, as it surely did to anyone with good ears, Karajan’s mesmeric space-commander hair, ascetic tunic and “visionary closed eyes” (interesting notion, that) encouraged along the way our notion of insights to be found within—most of them worthy and real.
Now here we are decades later—two Music Directors later—and Simon Rattle is saying goodbye to Berlin. Judging from the music-making in Davies Hall this time around, Rattle’s “happy professor” hairstyle may as well be a halo. The orchestra is in startlingly good shape—even richer and more powerful than under Karajan—and somehow more exciting and spontaneous than under Abbado. A hundred Berlin musicians onstage sound like 150 from nearly any other orchestra. And they seem to manage it all effortlessly. Rattle scarcely conducts. He presides like a restaurant owner. You do wonder how on earth they muster so much weight of sound….
It would be hard to draw many conclusions about sonority from Pierre Boulez’s Éclat, of course, which was played first and translates both as “splinter” and “flash of light.” It’s a tease that way. The piece is scored for only fifteen instruments, divided between those which cannot sustain a note and those which can. But even here, I was immediately made aware of a luxurious sensual atmosphere quite missing in the composer’s own more aggressive and metallic CD performance. Boulez’ score only gradually suggests a blending of timbres. Notes mostly “appear” and shimmer in place. And the piece’s louder moments have all the charm of an air-raid drill set to wind-chimes. Yet—magically it seems—Simon Rattle got the steely moments to glow from the inside.
Nothing prepared me, though, for the depth of shuddering power Rattle found in the telegraphic opening of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony—the trombone resounding like four tubas. And the walls of Davies Hall shook—even as its earthquake-proof floor ruefully did not. Still, the sheer weight of sound reminded me how Mahler returned in this symphony to the Straussian textures of Totenfeier. (Totenfeier morphed into the first movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony, when he reduced its harmonies to bare bones by eliminating the middle notes in chords.) But Mahler’s romance with asceticism seemed to end with this Seventh Symphony. Back-in came the juicy chordal harmonies. And he went on to score the Ninth Symphony with similar thick textures—and might have done so with the unfinished Tenth, if had lived to complete it to his own satisfaction.
I’m still of several minds about the Seventh Symphony. Beauty or bombast? Rattle took it fairly quickly—and as romantically and sensually as one could possibly ask. One shockingly loud climax followed another, with the orchestra visibly engaged. This was definitely exciting to listen to—and to watch. The bass players at times seemed to be flogging recalcitrant beasts or scrubbing like janitors gone mad. When the timpanist opened-up the finale, I felt certain he would break his set of drums. But in the end, so much of the music seems to be about impassioned moments that aren’t quite memorable. There was nothing Simon Rattle could do about that. Mahler should have cut five minutes from each movement—and it would would have been a better piece. As it is, you will never hear a more gorgeous performance. The spectral fourth movement was a bit too rich-sounding to be ghostly. But that’s my only criticism. The audience went crazy with howls of pack approval—as did I.
Back again for more the following night, I appreciated the short program speech Simon Rattle gave about playing the opening Vienna School works uninterrupted. It does take a certain zen-like shutting out of external stimulus to listen properly to Schoenberg, Webern and Berg at their most subtle. And to my surprise, the audience caught the mood perfectly and sustained interest. The three pieces together spun out to about forty minutes. So long as the movements are short and gemlike, it would seem, twelve-tone works can capture a listener’s sense of beauty.
Schoenberg’s Five Pieces, in fact, sound no harder to listen to today than something by a neurotic brother of Charles Ives. I say neurotic, because fear is always present in Schoenberg. The very first bars of Opus 16 end with a strangled woodwind wriggle—-like someone chased down an alley and trapped without escape. But it’s not hard to make sense of the music. “Colors,” indeed, seems almost headed towards being a chorale. Now that we’ve become relaxed enough about this early twelve-tone experimentation to stop being mad at it, it’s remarkable how much of the past it still seems to share. It’s almost lovable.
Theories aside, one movement of the Webern contains a creepy slow build over ominous bells, culminating in a nuclear-flash climax. This high drama seemed to catalyze a courting young couple in front of me. The boyfriend had clearly been hoping for a more romantic evening. He’d looked solicitous and whispery the whole time, a seriously worried mentor, as the music got progressively less and less palatable. But after realizing tunes would only come with Brahms after intermission—and working his arm around the seatback to my considerable amusement—he pounced impatiently during the Webern. Success! Off and running with the nuzzling and ear-kissing and finger twirling…. But Berg proved a little dangerous for our suitor. It’s got a demented waltz in it. The couple kept bumping into each other. And the piece ends violently, with a percussionist wielding an enormous blond wooden hammer twice the size of a human head. Our Romeo and Juliet nearly lost their noses!
But come intermission, and we all regained our Brahms ears. No orchestra in history, with possible exception of the Vienna Philharmonic, has been so identified with Brahms as the Berlin Philharmonic. During early years of Simon Rattle’s tenure, it was felt he steered the orchestra too far away from this core repertory: Brahms, Beethoven, Bruckner and Mozart. But everyone seems to have come to terms with issues of legacy now. Berlin still owns Brahms. And moreover, Rattle has discovered he is as good a Brahmsian as Karajan was. The CDs Rattle made of the four Brahms symphonies some years ago are as insightful as it gets—unless he were to re-record them today.
I had the good fortune of hearing Karajan conduct in person the four symphonies in Carnegie Hall in 1974. Even so, the performance Simon Rattle and the orchestra delivered in San Francisco last Wednesday was just as fleet, beautiful, mysterious and powerful in a way I’ve never heard before—and almost final in its authority. It was frankly better than Karajan’s Brahms. Lèse-majesté, I know.
Passing up the aisle, I noticed a man of my generation shaking his head with amazement as he collected his things.
“You’ll never hear it done better than that,” I said.
“I know,” he replied. “Never. Not even in another lifetime.…”