Thursday, 24 February 2011

BPO/Rattle - Brahms, Wolf, and Mahler, 23 February 2011

Royal Festival Hall

Brahms – Es tönt ein voller Harfenklang, op.17 no.1
Wolf – Mörike Lieder: ‘Elfenlied’
Mahler – Symphony no.3

Anke Hermann (soprano)
Nathalie Stutzmann (contralto)
Choir of Eltham College
Ladies of the London Symphony Chorus
Ladies of the BBC Singers
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)


Wonderful programming! Unfortunately, the magical Brahms and Wolf introduction proved by far the most musically satisfying part of this concert; not that the mannered – almost beyond belief – performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony prevented an inattentive audience of chatterers, consumptives, and mobile telephone users, sometimes all three together, from rising to its collective feet at the end. Hype is a dangerous thing; my fear is that Sir Simon Rattle, an extraordinarily able conductor, has fallen prey to the hype surrounding him one time too often. For we heard a glimpse of what might have been: those opening woodland scenes sounded ineffably beautiful, closer to a Platonic Idea of German Romanticism, horn calls and all, than perhaps ever they have done. When, moreover, shall we have the opportunity to hear them again? Reader, kindly refrain from holding your breath…

The first movement of the symphony was simply an incoherent mess. I have heard a few people describe the symphony as sprawling, but have always until now remained incredulous. This movement alone seemed as though it would never come to an end. Astoundingly beautiful playing from the Berlin Philharmonic alternated with brash, commonplace, hard-driven, Shostakovich-like marches,. The latter represent a point of view, I suppose, though not one I share; yet they seemed to have nothing whatsoever to do with the rest. Frustratingly, aspects of a superior performance thereafter shifted into (aural) view and shifted away just as quickly. Part of the problem seemed to be that the BPO could accomplish pretty much anything. Yet just because it can, does not mean that it should be asked to do so. Phrases were chopped up or elongated at will, likewise swelled or tapered. Had Nikolaus Harnoncourt not publicly declared his aversion to Mahler, one might have imagined him to have been at the podium. The posthorn solo was, I admit, achingly beautiful, though one sometimes struggled to hear it amidst the bronchial auditions for an intensive care ward. Nathalie Stutzmann gave as fine a rendition of her Nietzsche song as I can recall, and when Rattle ‘accompanied’, he proved sensitive indeed. We had to endure his trademark reading of the ‘hinaufziehen’ marking, though; it convinced me no more than it ever has done, sounding as if it would be better off in Tin Pan Alley than Pan’s world reawakened. If I had been summer marching in, I should have marched straight back out again. And the choral singing, especially that of the Choir of Eltham College, was first-rate in the fifth movement, Rattle’s shaping and the Berliners’ playing alert to parallels with the opening Brahms and Wolf pieces.

Then came the nadir: the opening of the great Langsam finale. Not only have I never heard it so butchered; I have never heard a performance that has come close. The first paragraph was so grotesquely disfigured by pulling around, chopping up, and arbitrary insertion of pauses, that I almost lost the will to live: this in a work I love beyond words. After that, it was too late for any sort of recovery to be made. Whatever the narcissistic beauties of much of the performance, there was a rootlessness, harmonic and rhythmic, that militated against meaning. Mannerisms became fewer, though still present, but I simply awaited, Wotan-like, the end. Ravishing woodwind could offer only incidental relief; by the same token, an unfortunate slip mattered little. The audience erupted…

16 comments:

EC said...

Comforting to know that there was someone else thinking the same as me last night. While others stood to clap, I remained very confused in my seat. Had I missed something? I thought the 3rd movement of the Mahler 3 was wonderful, but to either side it was a big mess. This was probably the most unmoving performance of the Langsam I had ever heard. What a shame, as the the orchestra were clearly on wonderful form.

So, another disappointing Mahler evening, following Dudamel. Next up for me is Maazel (though my hopes are not too high). Oh well, at least there's Pollini on Saturday.

Mark Berry said...

I do wonder about some of the people who rose to their feet. It was notably those who had visibly been paying scant or no attention who were most vigorous and indeed most fascistic in glaring at the few of us who stubbornly remained seated. Doubtless some genuinely enjoyed the experience, perhaps somehow found it revelatory, but I suspect that many were simply acting according to a herd mentality.

This was for me a far less rewarding musical experience than Runnicles with the unfashionable BBC SSO at last year's Proms, let alone performances I have heard from the Staatskapelle Berlin and Boulez or the BPO and Haitink at the Barbican some years ago.

Anonymous said...

It's very difficult symphony to pull off,I heard an amazing version with VPO in Salzburg in 2008 and an OK one with the same forces the night before.Also a really awful one with the Concergebouw and Jansons.The Symphony is available in the BPO concert hall,the performance they gave just before London

EC said...

The elderly man to my left was clearly moved by the performance. I was genuinely very happy for him - it's amazing to see someone so touched by music. Though I wonder how much the rest of the audience really listened (phones/coughs/rustling considered). One phone is bad, two terrible, three completely unforgivable. For me, the strange Rattle eccentricities (more than in his new Mahler 2 recording) meant that there was never much momentum in the piece.. there were parts to marvel at, and some of his transitions I found truly magical. But as a whole, 'unmoving' is the best word I can think of to describe the experience. 'Disappointing' comes a close second.

Jurowski, I thought, gave a far better performance last year. Of living conductors, Abbado would be my top pick. I wish he would give us an evening of Mahler when he visits later this year with his Lucerne Festival Orchestra; not that it will prevent me from going on both nights! I heard Runnicles for the first time last year (in Les Troyens).. that was a memorable performance, so I'll be looking out for more of him in the future.

Théo Bélaud said...

It's very interestting to see you english guys seem far more comfortable with saying what a disaster Simon Rattle has become with time ; it's not so much the case in France, maybe not even in Germany as far as I know.
I sometime feel the debate focuses on the wrong issue - something like "has Rattle denatured the Berlin Ph. (so-called) sound ?", and it's quite easy after a concert to answer "no,not at all, so look, this means he is as capable of conducting them as Abbado, Haitink or Metzmacher are, so he is a great conductor, end of discussion".
Well, if people are just happy with the fact Berlin sounds like Berlin (so I guess they somehow feel great history is still living somewhere), orchestral music is in some kind of troubles (at least it's not the only one).

EC said...

@Theo, I don't feel that way at all. In fact, I'm a big admirer of Simon Rattle and think he was the best pick for the Berlin post. I've found his Beethoven symphonies incredibly exciting in the past few years, as well as his Wagner and Sibelius (those are among the things I've heard him perform). I would love to hear his Salome this Easter, but probably wont make it. I also thought the Berlin Philharmonic played very well last night (from other reviews here, I believe on all four nights). I still regard them as among the top orchestras in the world, if not my personal favourite. Last night's disaster I place more on Rattle than the orchestra. But I do acknowledge that was one piece and one night.

Anonymous said...

You have to bear in mind as well that they done 3 different concerts over 3 nights,this is not the norm with this orchestra.Normally in Berlin they will do the same programme 2 or 3 nights in a row.As a rule if in Berlin I always go to the second or third performance as they are well played in by then.I heard Mahler 1 twice in November and the second performance was far better than the first,likewise the VPO in Salzburg for the Mahler 3 in 2008.I think great 2's or 3's will always be elusive.

Théo Bélaud said...

Sorry, I hadn't understood you where a Rattle admirer, since you ad disloked this particular concert as much as some others...

We do agree on the fact the orchestra is still among the very best : well, in my opinion, this says nothing about who the director is. It's actually quite often we can see a musical director giving poor concerts and recordings, but still getting the orchestra to work in order to maintain technical excellence (by all meanings, including global sound signature).
Sometimes the orchestra even improves itslef under their worse tenures... and the man who comes next get all the benefits. Things are strange !

Mark Berry said...

I am more equivocal concerning Rattle. I think he has done some truly excellent things, though more often in Birmingham than in Berlin. The second of the BPO's two Proms last year was very fine indeed, especially when it came to the successive performances of works by Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg. The first (Beethoven's 4th and Mahler's 1st) I thought simply awful, both works pulled around all over the place for no discernible, let alone good, reason and the BPO exhibiting that strange 'rootless' sound I observed in the present Mahler performance. Rattle was an extraordinary Music Director in Birmingham, his achievements going far beyond 'mere' conducting; I am yet to be convinced that this appointment was the best option for either conductor or orchestra. Barenboim seemed a better idea at the time, and in many respects remains so.

As for the orchestra itself, of course it is still a great ensemble. But it seems to have undergone the final transformation from a collective with some kind of identifiable sound of its own to an extraordinary versatile, hyper-virtuosic, international ensemble. I'd choose Vienna or Dresden, if I must...

Gavin Plumley said...

I haven't heard Dresden recently, so cannot comment, but the VPO has sounded as if on auto-pilot on both of its recent trips to London. Its eschewal of a Principal Conductor begins to haunt them when we are subjected to Mehta's unfeeling Brahms 4 or Maazel's prissy La Mer. It goes without saying that we had a very different experience on Wednesday.

Anonymous said...

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on this http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/tomserviceblog/2011/feb/24/classical-music-simon-rattle-berlin-philharmonic
Judging by the comments section on his article, Tom Service's opinion is not a very popular one.

Mark Berry said...

Gavin: I suspect part of the problem, for both orchestras, will be the demands of touring. The BPO, under Rattle as well as other conductors, has almost always sounded better to me at home in the Philharmonie than in many other venues, especially here in London. Presenting four different programmes on successive nights seems a bit silly really - though it certainly plays into the mindless press coverage of a 'super-orchestra', etc., which seems to have more in common with athletics than art. Having all concerned run some sort of musical marathon does not necessarily seem the wisest path for artistic results. However, my problem was barely with the orchestra at all on this occasion, but with Rattle's direction. It comes to something when I should rather, just, hear Maazel. I am not at all sure that the VPO needs a principal conductor, given the relatively small number of concerts it gives; after all, as you know, the State Opera does have a music director. The loss of the BPO's distinctive sound is another matter: a matter of considerable sadness, I think, but in terms of its technical prowess, I admit that it is not all loss.

Anonymous: In principle, I sympathise with Service. That idiot who shouted out was extremely annoying. (Whoever would think that such exhibitionism was an appropriate reaction, dragging Mahler down to the level of a Donizetti gala? And who would care so little for the effect it might have on the rest of the audience? That goes of course for the coughers, telephone users, etc.) Had I found the performance more convincing, I should doubtless have been livid; as it was, it seemed to fit rather well with the boorish behaviour of a considerable section of the audience.

Evan Tucker said...

I've always thought that the Rattle/Berlin Philharmonic partnership was a mistake made for the best possible reasons. The Berlin Philharmonic wanted to stay relevant in the 21st century, and Simon Rattle wanted to effect the change he wanted to see in the music world. The problem with these notions is that the Berlin Philharmonic is no longer the center of orchestral life it once was, and Rattle will never be happy resting in the shadows of an organization's past glories. The person who should be the director of the Berlin Philharmonic is Barenboim, but he should have succeeded Karajan, not Abbado. Rattle should have stayed in England, where he could have had his pick of projects with any orchestra he wanted.

I've been listening to the BBC/Berlin Mahler broadcasts all week, and I can't say I was more than intermittently impressed with what I heard - it was as though they were going through the motions of what was expected of them (Mahler in 2010-11). Far more impressive was the Schubert 9, which had real fire.

Anonymous said...

"The loss of the BPO's distinctive sound is another matter: a matter of considerable sadness"

I wonder when you think this loss happened in Berlin and what exactly was lost. The BPO certainly changed a lot under each of Karajan, Abbado and Rattle. It seems rather difficult to work out what might constitute a 'distinctive' orchestral sound in general though; if we take, for example, the VPO, which you praise as the most distinctive of all, the main quality you single out is its distinctive 'sweetness of tone'. And yet you also regularly praise other orchestras for having a sweet sound, including on occasion the BPO, so is it just a matter of an orchestra playing with sufficient sweetness and sufficiently consistently for them to equal or even surpass the VPO? - which as you admit, has its off days and can sound rather ordinary on occasion.
Nowadays many conductors have moved away from a 'one sound for everything' philosophy, and orchestras have also moved away from playing with the same sound for every conductor (obviously to varying degrees). The merits of this change may be debatable, but surely what matters is not whether an orchestra produces a certain sound every night and under every conductor, but whether it is capable of producing a distinctive sound under the right conditions. For both the VPO and BPO, conductors who do not work with the orchestras regularly or who don't have very clear sonic requirements often get rather bland and unimpressive sounds. Yet when Barenboim, Haitink, Abbado, Thielemann, Jansons, Bychkov and others conduct both orchestras, they can produce very exciting and distinctive orchestral sounds. The problem with Rattle is that while he certainly gets very beautiful sounds, often he doesn't get as much mellowness and warmth as Barenboim, Thielemann, or even Abbado. And certainly, like it or not, he is not one to always try and get the same sound in all repertoire, which may lead some to accuse him of failing to preserve a distinctive Berlin sound. But I think listening to the Digital Concert Hall or to concerts under different conductors one can hear that under certain conductors the BPO can still produce a very distinctive, rich, mellow sound - and the ability in general to still do this surely matters more than absolute consistency in always doing so.
I am somewhat surprised at your neglect of the Concertgebouw. It is regularly praised for its distinctive sound and exactly the kinds of qualities you seem to like - golden strings, mellow brass - and yet you rarely seem to attend their concerts, despite their having a conductor in Jansons in my view as great as any today.

Mark Berry said...

Evan, I quite agree re Barenboim. Consciously or otherwise, I suspect that was a subtext to some of what I was saying.

Anonymous, I think the Concertgebouw is a wonderful orchestra: I shouldn't read anything in particular to not having heard it so often (recently), other than that that is just how things have fallen. My travels have not tended to take me to the Netherlands, but I hope to hear the RCOA when here at the Barbican next season. (Haitink, though, I think, rather than Harnoncourt!)

You are quite right to point to the changes under Karajan, at least so far as I am able to discern from recordings (which of course may be a considerable part of the issue: the sound one wishes to produce for a recording, that is). Yet, it seems to me that though the generic sound' - I realise we are painting with quite a broad brush here - was transformed, for better or worse, under Karajan, there still remained something recognisable about it. That quality seemed to be partly lost under Abbado, and no longer seems to exist under Rattle, which is odd, given that I recall Rattle once lamenting the loss of individual orchestral sounds. Clearly, no one would employ quite the same 'sound' for everything, but it seems to me more interesting to find some sort of appropriate relationship between orchestral sound and repertoire, rather than simply impose an homogenenised, often rather empty, 'ideal for x' upon an orchestra. I recall Boulez, for example, saying that when he first conducted Bruckner with the VPO, he was sure that he would have more to learn from the orchestra than vice versa: not a bad attitude to take, given the orchestra's collective experience. For what it's worth, I was pleasantly surprised, perhaps more than that, to hear the depth of tone the BPO was able to muster for a concert I heard given under Thielemann (Brahms and Schoenberg, 12 December 2009).

Anonymous said...

There's an interesting and free interview in the BPO digital concert hall where Rattle talks about the whole Mahler project and also about taking over the Orchestra.Karajan said to him apparently that it would take 5 years for the transition to take place and more than a 100 Beethoven 5's before the BPO washed out the sound of their predecessor.The BPO are different btw under different conductors,Dudamel with them was a revelation for instance.As regards the VPO I was stunned at how BPO like they were under Thielmann and conversely how tradmark like they were under Mehta some years back in a fab Bruckner 9.Rattle and the VPO next year should be interesting.