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…