Berliner Philharmoniker/Rattle at Carnegie Hall – 3: Wolf Choral Works & Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony

Manuel Venegas – Frühlingschor
Der Feuerreiter
Symphony No.2 (Resurrection)

Camilla Tilling (soprano) & Bernarda Fink (mezzo-soprano)

Westminster Symphonic Choir

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 25 February, 2012
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York

Sir Simon Rattle. Photograph: Mat Hennek EMISimon Rattle is to be applauded for boldly programming three rarely heard short works for chorus and orchestra by Hugo Wolf that are roughly contemporary with Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony.

Rattle put the spotlight on the superb Westminster Symphonic Choir and its convincing characterizations of the sunny, pastoral ‘Frühlingschor’ from Wolf’s incomplete opera, Manuel Venegas, and his dramatic setting of Eduard Mörike’s poem, Der Feuerreiter. Elfenlied, after Shakespeare’s ‘Ye spotted snakes’ in Act Two of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, also calls for a soprano soloist. Camilla Tilling’s sonority, luminous without being overpowering, was well-suited to the text and music. Wolf’s orchestration presages that of Zemlinsky and early Schoenberg. Rattle and the orchestra, particularly the wind players, delivered the music’s late-Romantic atmosphere and sonic imagery with dazzling assurance, lending Der Feuerreiter a few portents of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder.

The sound of Berliner Philharmoniker during its last few appearances in New York had been quite different than during the Abbado years – a bit more ‘international’. However I was surprised with the orchestra’s unique and impressive timbre throughout the Mahler – the strings seemed to revert to the massive, warm sound Abbado consistently delivered. There was also a bit more bite in the winds and brass, but also an unusually homogenized sonority within brass and woodwinds, with the notable exception of the oboes, which still retain more than a hint of the stamp cultivated by Lothar Koch during Karajan’s regime.

The performance was unique and impressive, too – in all of the wrong ways. Rattle has very strong opinions about this work, which have evolved over several decades. Unfortunately, they do little to illuminate the music and much to subvert it. Rattle lavishes enormous attention on each and every phrase, employing strongly emphatic phrasing and articulation, frequent rubato, and often-exaggerated tempo changes, including many not indicated in the score. The end result is that the architecture of each movement is excised, leaving an episodic, incoherent façade. There were a few ensemble lapses, particularly in the second movement and the most-frenetic passages in the finale.

Mahler wrote many passages drawing on country, military and ‘street’ music; all of these were rendered with far too much beauty. Bernarda Fink brought radiance but little ardor to ‘Urlicht’, the ensemble of trumpets, horns, and bassoons placed at the rear of Stern Auditorium’s upper balcony; the effect, though not quite what Mahler calls for, was strongly atmospheric. The finale is one of Mahler’s most demanding creations; Rattle’s tempo extremes, while often exciting, made it jarringly episodic – until the transition to D flat following the most forceful music. The stately tempos were reminiscent of those on Hermann Scherchen’s controversial recording from over half-a-century ago, yet this latter half of the finale, culminating in the setting of Klopstock’s Auferstehen, the ardent contributions of the solo singers, and the tutti conclusion were enormously satisfying – Rattle seemed to be doing less and was getting much more, especially the inspired singing of the choir.

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