Arts & Events

Simon Rattle Conducts Berlin Philharmonic in Mahler’s 7th Symphony

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday November 25, 2016 - 10:46:00 AM

What a treat it is to have two great conductors and two of the world’s leading orchestras, Gustavo Dudamel with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Simon Rattle with the Berliner Philharmoniker, performing, respectively, Gustav Mahler’s 9th Symphony and Mahler’s 7th Symphony in a three-week span here in San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall. On Tuesday evening, November 22, Simon Rattle, the Berlin Philharmonic’s chief conductor for the past 14 years, led his orchestra in a program consisting of Éclat by the late Pierre Boulez and Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 in E minor. The following night’s program by the Berlin Philharmonic featured works by the 20th century Viennese atonal innovators Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, as well as the Symphony No. 2 in D Major by Brahms.  

To employ a culinary phrase, Boulez’s 8-minute Éclat might be termed an amuse-bouche, a starter that tickles the palate and prepares the taste-buds for more substantial fare to come. Boulez scored Éclat for two groups of instruments – one a group of ‘soloists’ consisting of piano, celesta, cimbalom, glockenspiel, vibraphone, tubular bells, harp, mandolin, and guitar; and another consisting of alto flute, English horn, trumpet, trombone, viola, and cello. These two groups trade musical ideas back and forth like quicksilver, with often striking modulations made clear by the Berlin Philharmonic instrumentalists. 

Without an intermission the Berlin Philharmonic launched into Gustav Mahler’s 7th Symphony, the least well-known of this composer’s symphonies and one of his most controversial. Scholars are divided over the apparent imbalance between the huge, heavy textured outer movements and the three lighter textured inner movements consisting of two different Night Music episodes and a Scherzo. Some fault the Night Music episodes as being unworthy of the opening and closing movements. For my part, I admire the songful Night Music sections far more than I admire the often bombastic outer movements; and I found this to be true even granting how energetically intense I found Simon Rattle’s conducting of the opening and closing movements.  

We sometimes forget that Mahler composed many beautiful song-cycles and built many of his symphonies out of music from the song-cycles. Here, his Nachtmusik I recalls his themes from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The main section of Night Music I is a slow march filled with chiaroscuro effects, which may or may not be inspired by Rembrandt’s famed chiaroscuro in the painting known as The Night Watch. (The conductor Willem Mengelberg suggested this source.) In between the two Night Music episodes is a brief, shadowy Scherzo, which also conjures up spectral visions of the night. The shrieking glissando of two clarinets is grim indeed, perhaps even a vision of The Grim Reaper. Nachtmusik II then follows with a serenade marked Andante amoroso, full of sighing violins and lilting lyricism which are interrupted, however, by a fierce reminder of the Scherzo’s dark side. 

The three inner movements were in fact the first music Mahler composed for this symphony. Unable to proceed further, he retreated to a summer home on the Wörthersee, where, out rowing on the Tyrolean lake one day, the rhythm of the oars gave Mahler a starting point for his opening movement. Amidst this rhythmic motif the tenor horn announces the first main idea of the symphony. Mahler specified that the tenor horn must be played with a big tone, even suggesting that “Here nature roars.” (The Berlin Philharmonic’s horn section played beautifully throughout this work.) The music builds slowly but steadily. Trumpets announce the Allegro, in which a martial theme is heard in horns and cellos. A Viennese theme reminiscent of Richard Strauss is heard in the violins, developed with fantastic tonal freedom and harmonic resources. However, the hefty tuttis of this opening movement border on the bombastic, which I deplore, even while appreciating the clarity of the Berlin Philharmonic’s approach.  

As for the finale, Simon Rattle, who first recorded Mahler’s 7th Symphony back in 1991 with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, succeeds in pulling off a mad coherence. From the thunderous drums at the opening of this Rondo-Finale to a coda brimming with garish colors and orchestral excess, Rattle embraces a wholeheartedly vulgar apotheosis of Viennese dance. There are veiled references, almost parodic in style, to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger and Franz Lehár’s Merry Widow Waltz. I’m not overly fond of this finale’s successive climaxes, but Battle and his Berlin Philharmonic give this finale everything it’s worth and more. Battle’s humility, after the tumultuous applause at the conclusion of Mahler’s 7th Symphony, was heart-warming. The conductor did not just point to individual musicians in his orchestra who figured prominently in this concert; he also made a tour deep into the orchestra to shake hands and embrace his musicians as he invited them to take well-earned individual bows. At the end, quite a few musicians of the Berliner Philharmoniker were seen to embrace one another, as if aware that in this concert they had created something exceptional, which they surely did.