Tuesday, February 8, 2011

mahler mysterium

I take it all back! Sometimes I am wrong, and this is one of those times. A few weeks ago, I faulted the programming direction of the Berlin Phil season, rightfully so. But I also slighted Simon Rattle's choice to pair Mahler symphonies with music of Brahms, Wolf, and Purcell rather than new works. After Saturday night's exhilarating Mahler Three concert, I will be the first to admit I was mistaken. There exists no better placement of music alongside Mahler's Third than Brahms' Es tönt ein voller Harfenklang and Hugo Wolf's Elfenlied. These two works, scored for women's choir with accompaniment, melted into the Mahler, providing a focused introduction into the mystical soundworld of the Third. Rather than point out musicological correlations, they simply integrated with the larger work; the ear and mind could tease out connections, but the flow between the three pieces felt so natural that it overwhelmed the intellect.

That flow was one of arch-Teutonic Romanticism, embodying the worship of nature which epitomized 19th-century German art. The short Brahms work alternated broad, melancholy horn calls with the spellbinding singing of women of the Rundfunkchor Berlin, their voices hovering in the style of Renaissance polyphony. Stefan Dohr's natural, vibrato-less horn playing only added to the ethereal effect, evoking the hunting horns omnipresent in Romantic iconography. Rattle immediately transitioned into the forest whispers of the Elfenlied, which draws its text from Schlegel's translation of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Anke Hermann, a pixie-like soprano, blended darkly into the sound of the echoing Frauenchor.

This all acted as giant upbeat to Mahler's Third, itself a vivid description of the delights and sorrows of nature. The first movement illustrates the awakening of Pan and summer, but summer takes its time to wake up. The opening is less of a march than an extended, grotesque trudge, with tremors of summer and sickly-sweet textures gradually emerging over the fog of brass. Just when summer seems to have finally arrived, the music sags back into a second groaning march, with a burnished trombone moaning a languid soliloquy. Though it roughly resembles the traditional opening sonata form of a symphony, the thirty-minute movement is a series of loose episodes, with sweeping summits and strange little bubbly moments. With the polished brass and sensational woodwinds of the Philharmonic, individual effects came off brilliantly, and the strings literally threw themselves into the music, producing a round but furious sound as they swayed with Rattle's conducting.

The next two movements, swirling dances which depict the flowers of the meadow and the animals of the forest, evoked the restless twilight shimmer of Wolf's Elfenlied, with the posthorn solo of the scherzando (played heroically by Tamas Velenczei) directly recalling the earlier horn passages in the Brahms. In the mysterious Nietzsche setting O Mensch, the Phil produced that incredible, nearly inaudible string pianissimo which only they can do, elegantly balanced under Nathalie Stutzmann's silky alto. The women's choir and boy's chorus of the Staats- and Domchors Berlin gave crisp merriness to the penultimate movement, a choral setting of a joyful text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

Finally, Rattle unleashed the langsam finale, the first true slow movement in the composer's oeuvre. In Rattle's hands, it became an ecstatic sigh of relief, at once pensive and comforting, punctured by searing climaxes of almost demonic energy. In those final moments, when the full mass of the orchestra resembles an organ, with dual timpanis pounding away, one can glimpse Mahler's sublimation of man and nature into religious ritual, what he aptly titled "What Love Tells Me."


Over the past few months, I have figured out why I like Simon Rattle so much. There are a wealth of conductors whose recordings cannot fully convey their enthusiasm, and Rattle belongs to their numbers. Not only does he exude a certain indescribable charisma in live performance, but the very act of watching him conduct---the individual gestures with which he shapes phrases, and the unseen details he physically draws from the score---better elucidates the music. His Mahler provides a classic example of his gifts. Mahler's Third requires the impossible combination of rigorous pacing and sweeping drama--each moment needs a sense of the grandiose, but the individual moments cannot eclipse the huge structure.

Modern Mahler interpretation can be broken down into two categories:

Appoach A: The Tilson-Thomas approach. Every climax is the climax, creating a perpetual state of now. Every colossal surge of sound obliterates the past surges while eliminating the potential to anticipate the future surges, a roller-coaster ride of constant exhilaration. But Mahler’s music requires the past and future---broad themes and rolling orchestral flourishes constantly reference each other, bouncing across each symphony’s tremendous form. The very concept of progressive tonality, from which a symphony evolves from C# minor to D major (as in the Fifth), demands structural integrity and architectural vision. With Tilson-Thomas, you can't see the forest for the trees.

Which brings us to Appproach B: the Haitink approach. Conductors like Bernhard Haitink, James Levine, and to an extent Pierre Boulez conceive of Mahler as an elaborate architecture, shaping each movement to build towards the next, suppressing individual climaxes in order to unleash a full fury in the most heightened moment of the symphony. They erect ornate cathedrals, with individual details forged to draw attention to the whole structure. This works perfectly for Bruckner, a composer whose music is excruciatingly boring when a conductor gives every fortissimo equally climactic weight. But an ornate cathedral cannot punch you in the face. The first movement of Mahler’s Second loses its earth-shaking force because Haitink holds back until the finale; he loses sense of the moment in the overall build.

Somehow, Rattle flawlessly combines these two approaches. Rather than hold back smaller moments in favor of the great climaxes, suppressing fortes to bring out fortissimos, he layers energy upon energy. The sense of scaled, long-term structure exists, but Rattle builds excitement on top of excitement: the smaller climaxes retain their kick, and the massive ones shake the floors. Each apex seems to be the largest possible until the next one, and the energy constantly builds without losing the overall architecture. It's impossible to tell where these reserves of energy come from, but they come, and it works. The trees are there, the forest is there, and the cathedral punches you in the gut.

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