Royal Albert Hall
Wagner – Parsifal: Prelude to Act One
Strauss – Four Last Songs
Schoenberg – Five Orchestral Pieces, op.16
Webern – Six Orchestral Pieces, op.6
Berg – Three Orchestral Pieces, op.6
Karita Mattila (soprano)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)
What a maddeningly inconsistent conductor Sir Simon Rattle can be! After the previous night’s infuriating Beethoven and Mahler, he and the Berlin Philharmonic came up with a wonderful programme of Wagner, Strauss, and the Second Viennese School. The orchestra sounded transformed; indeed, it did not sound like the same orchestra at all. Rattle seemed much readier to allow the music to speak, which is not to say that it was uninterpreted, but merely that it was not subjected to apparently arbitrary decisions.
The Prelude to Act One of Parsifal set an entirely different tone from the outset. Luminous in performance as well as essence, this was undeniably the music Debussy unforgettably dubbed ‘lit from behind’. Audience spluttering detracted from the experience but could not obliterate it. Stentorian Berlin brass harked back to an imaginary past, born of Wagner’s study of earlier music, yet transmuted into something that sets in conflict time and eternity: the very stuff of Wagner's final drama. The violins’ sweetness on intoning Wagner’s Dresden Amens enabled one to forget their nondescript tone of the night before, whilst the BPO’s woodwind was ravishing as ever. Perhaps most importantly of all, Rattle exhibited a command of line those earlier performances had never attained, heightening the composer’s mystery. This was the same conductor of those excellent performances of Parsifal at Covent Garden a few years ago. Indeed, this performance made me want to hear the entire drama. Applause was as understandable as it was inappropriate.
Karita Mattila joined the orchestra for Strauss’s Four Last Songs. Everyone will have a favourite singer – or several – here, and the work is such that, try as one might to avoid it, one is likely always to draw comparisons. My ultimate favourite remains Gundula Janowitz, with this orchestra and Herbert von Karajan. Rattle’s reading of the opening Frühling was swifter than Karajan’s, closer perhaps to the intervening Claudio Abbado. It is spring, after all, if a somewhat autumnal spring. Parsifalian translucency persisted, developed into Strauss. Mattila’s tone proved beautifully instrumental in this song, the down side being that I could not discern a single word that she sang. Silvery violins added to the determinedly non-valedictory mood. September in Rattle’s hands sounded more modernistic – in a Rosenkavalier- like way – than one often hears. Tempo fluctuated but with good musical reason. Mattila’s diction was improved, but, as so often, it was the ravishing horn solo that took one’s breath away. In the final of the Hesse settings, Beim Schlafengehen, Mattila’s diction was further improved. (Doubtless the fault lies to an extent with the acoustic.) These sounded like true Lieder now: a moving performance, even if I could not quite forget Janowitz. Im Abendrot continued the good work: I thought I heard an error but, upon consulting Eichendorff’s text, realised that the only error lay in my recollection. Rattle in his introduction conjured up a true Straussian sunset. Here, he was really rather slow, but wonderfully so: the lingering one would have had no other way. The BPO’s orchestral line was seamless, and again there was a hint of Parsifal, this time in its world-weariness.
As the perfect response to the arrant nonsense emanating from some quarters concerning ‘validity’ of applause between movements, Rattle made an announcement at the beginning of the second half, requesting that any applause be deferred until the end of the third set of pieces. During rehearsal, he and the orchestra had come to realise that the sets by Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg were best understood as one great, eleventh symphony by Mahler. This was just how they would sound in excellent, indeed great performances – though the lack of applause did not run to the lack of persistent bronchial commentary, those ensconced in the Royal Albert Hall’s boxes being perhaps the worst offenders.
Schoenberg’s op.16 Five Orchestral Pieces opened with a strong narrative, perhaps musico-dramatic, thrust that never faltered: symphonic in the best sense. Wilder, more barbaric even, than one often hears, the first piece seemed to presage, arguably exceed The Rite of Spring, likewise in the ultra-profusion of melody. Vorgefühle (‘Premonitions’) indeed! Stravinsky and Schoenberg are not always so distant as both composers would have liked to think. The languorous opening of the second piece, not least its beautifully voiced cello solo, seemed both to look back towards Mahler and forward to Berg’s Lulu: surely a work Rattle should conduct. Solo voices melted into a phantasmagoria of remembrance. This was music of beauty to rival Mozart, with a luminous recollection of Parsifal – again – in the bass. Farben was delicate but also Bergian: a striking reminder of the extraordinary nature of Schoenberg’s ear. Only a cretin – or should I say ‘only cretins’, since there are many who do – would deny that. (The same people speak of a lack of rhythmic understanding in the music of the Second Viennese School; the lack is entirely theirs.) There was so much under the surface – and one could hear both that surface and what lay underneath. The Salzburger Traunsee seemed unusually present, though never in an obvious, programmatic sense. Schoenberg’s fourth piece emerged scherzo-like, but with due languor in its brief ‘trio’ moments. The BPO and Rattle ensured that everything was exquisitely voiced and balanced. Post-Wagnerian unendliche Melodie was the hallmark of the concluding ‘obligate Rezitativ’. Whilst all was ever new, it somehow seemed also to fulfil the symphonic obligation of reprise.
Webern provided the central movement of this Mahler-Rattle symphony: the Six Orchestral Pieces, op.6. Kinship and difference were immediately announced in the first piece, Webern’s crystalline clarity as evident as his parallel melodic profusion. Webern’s – and his performers’ – ear for balance in the second piece precluded neither fury nor resignation (Parsifal?). How quickly everything changes; how intently one must listen; how extraordinary are the rewards. The Klee-like vision was striking, the BPO’s quartet of trombones simply outstanding. Solo voices in the third piece evoked a Mozart reborn, a serenade that has last its moorings – and is finding new ones. The celebrated Funeral March was immensely more powerful, more Mahlerian, than anything in the previous night’s ‘real’ Mahler, the onward tread truly remarkable, indeed quite shattering. Yet timbres looked forward as much as back: the brave new world of the 1950s, of Boulez, Stockhausen, and Nono was within reach. Finally, the sixth piece sang itself into oblivion, at least as moving as those Strauss Lieder of farewell.
Berg’s Op.6 Pieces rounded off the programme. The Präludium presented a truly primæval Werden (‘becoming’), again reminding one of the contemporary Rite, as well as what makes Berg utterly different. Rattle permitted echt-Bergian nostalgia (Mahler again) to sing in a way that might even today embarrass Boulez. Again, the onward tread was all – yet somehow never to the exclusion of detail. Ghosts of Vienna danced in Reigen – and how beautifully, how gracefully, how ominously. Wozzeck lay just around the corner. The exquisite nature of the BPO’s performance did not preclude dramatic involvement; it enticed one into the Bergian labyrinth. Mahler sang one last time in the final Marsch, which here sounded as martial as I can recall, perhaps more so. Berg, we could feel only too well, was telling a tale, which, like Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, ought to have been too terrible to tell. Throughout, Rattle revelled in Berg’s hyper-expressive complexity and thereby enabled us to do so too. Symphonic weight was equally present, bringing us to the threshold of the almost unbearable. Equally remarkable, though never in itself, was the precision of the BPO players, a true match to their undeniable commitment. I have never heard these pieces better performed, and find it difficult to believe that I shall. Revelatory in every sense!
And so, whilst I started by saying that Rattle could be maddeningly inconsistent, there is also something curiously consoling about the human element in performance here. One should never take anything for granted. Conductors, soloists, orchestras can all have off-days and can (mostly) all excel too. We are not, thank God, dealing with automatons.