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Friday, August 26, 2011

Live Webcast Review: Shine a Light

Berlin Philharmonic opens with Mahler's Seventh.
Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic. Photo by Mark Allan.
Today, the Berlin Philharmonic opened their Digital Concert Hall to the world, offering a free pass to view the orchestra's season-opening performance of Mahler's Seventh Symphony, under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle. The concert, broadcast live from the Philharmonie, the ensemble's pentagon-shaped main concert hall, marked the start of the orchestra's 2011-2012 season.

The Seventh is one of Mahler's most challenging symphonies, the bane of even the most experienced conductor. It is the last of an informal trilogy of all-instrumental symphonies with the Fifth and Sixth. Its content: four "nocturnal" movements in a row, against a fifth which is bathed in brash, arrogant daylight. Nobody is really sure what Mahler meant by that contrast, and it is that uncertainty that sinks most attempts to interpret this symphony.

Sir Simon led the orchestra in a first movement that climbed from the melancholy horn melody that opens the work (played here on a tenor Wagner tuba) to a dizzying height. The five horns contrasted the movement's heroic theme against a lush background of strings. The famous "Star Trek" trumpet solo soared forth against hushed, mysterious chords. The coda had the Berliners playing with an eloquence one normally associates with the Viennese, a quality of laughing and weeping at once that is central to Mahler.


The second movement is the first of two to be labeled Nachtmusik, a mysterious journey through the woods. Sir Simon took this trip at a fast walk, losing none of the eloquence of the horn lines and percussive detail (cowbells, col legno strings) along the way. The tempo gave a sense of urgency to the music, as if the mysterious night-time mission required stealth, speed, and care.

The third movement (marked schattenhaft ("shadow-like")) is treacherous, with its "off" rhythms and whirling figures muttered and growled in the low winds and strings. The Berliners sounded like a calliope that couldn't quite get started. Trombones, cellos and double basses played this trip-wire music with such precision that it sounded almost random in its execution, terrifying in its portent.

The massive ensemble appeared to reduce itself for the fourth movement, another Nachtmusik. This is an elegant throwback with tributes to the slow movements of Haydn, Mozart and Boccherini. The oboes, cellos and horn made eloquent contributions, and the presence of guitar and mandolin lent color to the work. In the central secton, Mahler inserts a rising melody (carried by the oboe and the violin) that offers hints for the finale.

The brass fanfare that opens the fifth movement sets the tone for the entirety of what follows. Some conductors play it a drunken village band. Others favor a more stately, orderly approach to the theme, making it sound almost like the overture to Wagner's Die Meistersinger. Sir Simon Rattle fell between the two stools offering an energetic reading of the movement but presenting the noble tones of his excellent brass section.

Low strings took up the bustling main theme of the Rondo, interrupted periodically by the brass fanfare. In the final bars, the melancholy theme of the opening movement returned, transformed by the sunnier orchestral backdrop into a solemn hymn of life. Sir Simon Rattle brought the whole to a triumphant close, shining much-needed light on this deserving and misunderstood Mahler symphony.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.