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Friday, November 11, 2016

Concert Review: In Their Darkest Hour

Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The redoubtable Sir Simon Rattle brought the Berlin Philharmonic back to New York this week.
Photo by Thomas Rabsch © Thomas Rabsch licensed to Warner Brothers Classics.
The tenure of British conductor Sir Simon Rattle at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic is coming to an end. Starting next season, the Liverpool-born conductor prepares to mount the podium of another legendary ensemble: the London Symphony Orchestra. Before that happy event, there is the business of a North American tour with the Berliners, a tour which stopped at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday night for the first of two concerts this week.

Sir Simon has been a Perspectives artist at the Hall for the last year. That meant he's been allowed to indulge in his own programming ideas,  bringing innovative, handpicked concerts to the stages within Carnegie hall, both with and without his Berlin forces. Wednesday’s concert offered the most challenging concert yet, a pairing of Pierre Boulez’ explosive chamber piece Éclat ("Burst") with Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 7, a five-movement  beast of a piece that was met with bafflement and scorn at its 1908 premiere, and continues to be a terror for all but the most intrepid of conductors.

The Boulez work is written for a small group of strings, brass and wind, with the addition of piano, celesta, guitar amd mandolin, the latter two instruments also having an important role to play in the Mahler work. It consisted of a series of musical cells that burst upon the eardrum, coming from different parts of the orchestra and organized according to Boulez' sometimes abstruse serial system. Complex thought he work was its effect was simple and primal, the aural equivalent of watching fireworks dance above a crowd on a hot summer night.

Summer nights are also a chief concern of Mahler's Seventh. Its first four movements are nocturnal, beginning with a grand opening that shifts through numerous tempo and key changes in its pursuit of a mournful solo for tenor horn. The solo theme contrasts with chugging rhythms in the cellos and bass before yielding to a bright, almost banal march. Solos for winds and trumpet evoke mysterious musical promises and the whole thing swaggers to an optimistic finish.

In this performance, Sir Simon maintained an iron control of his players, taming this wild music with every sure step. Working without the benefit of a printed score, he cued the arrival of the new themes and tempos which come seemingly at the drop of a hat. And yet the overall architecture of this bizarre movement was precisely maintained, as the dark atmosphere and brooding mi or chords prepared the listener for the eventual dawn.

That sunrise held off for the next three movements. The second and fourth are marked Nachtmusik, with the first being a march and the latter a serenade. They are bridged by a weird Scherzo marked schattenhaft or "shadowlike." Sir Simon treated them as one organic whole, taking the listener on a brisk tour of Mahler’s subconscious as if they were a squad of troops on some secret mission through enemy territory. The second nocturne, with the orchestra augmented by the dulcet strumming of the aforementioned guitar and mandolin offered some emotional relief.

When the sun finally rose, it shot straight up out of the trumpet section as the orchestra launched into the final, fierce Rondo. Using a souped-up version of the stuttered opening rhythm and a pair of chorale phrases that evoke the celebratory sounds of Wagner's Die Meistersinger, the orchestra charged ahead, declaring the victory and triumph of daylight. In the final pages of this long movement, the opening tenor horn theme returned as a triumphant shout, closing the most optimistic and unconventional of Mahler's later symphonies.

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