Berliner Philharmoniker/Rattle in London – Mahler 3 in Royal Festival Hall

Es tönt ein voller Harfenklang, Op.17/1
Mörike Lieder – Elfenlied
Symphony No.3

Anke Hermann (soprano) [Brahms]

Nathalie Stutzmann (contralto)

Ladies of London Symphony Chorus; Ladies of BBC Singers; Choir of Eltham College

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 23 February, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Sir Simon Rattle. Photograph: Mat Hennek EMIIt was some song of innocence and experience that rounded off Simon Rattle and Berliner Philharmoniker’s rapturously received visit to the Southbank Centre and the Barbican Centre. And just in case we hadn’t got the point, they prefaced the Mahler with two part-songs for women’s voices by Brahms and Hugo Wolf that inhabit the peculiarly German style of melancholic yearning and fairy fantasy that nurtured Mahler in his ‘Wunderhorn’ years, and which he expanded so spectacularly. They were sung with touching reverence and intimacy, with an open-hearted horn solo in the Brahms, hauntingly played by Stefan Dohr, and in the Wolf (a setting of ‘You spotted snakes’ from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) a soprano solo of disarming sweetness from Anke Hermann.

We can marvel until the cows come home at the clarity, cohesion and character of the Philharmoniker and at its astonishingly liberated, pliable ensemble that seems to reach every last synapse of this orchestra’s astounding musicianship. But what blows you away is when such prodigal virtuosity transcends itself in a work as massive and complex as Mahler’s Third, seething with ideals and opportunities of instrumental sound completely realised by these amazing players. In this Royal Festival Hall concert, as part of “Shell Classic International”, Simon Rattle gave the immense first movement its head, but with the sort of suggestive direction that created a web of subliminal reference as elements of the music jostled for supremacy, with the upwardly mobile procession of creation always fearful of its brooding origin. There were some spine-tingling sounds – the bleak, seismic shudders caused by the huge chords that crash into the opening fanfare; the anxiety-inducing triplet figure on the trumpets; and the sense of liberation as the procession gathers momentum to become an elemental force. This is one of the most difficult movements in Mahler, and Rattle steered us through its tumultuous, teetering process with unerring and deceptively light control.

It also gave coherence to the simpler charms of the second and third movements, with the off-stage posthorn solo (Tamás Velenczei) heart-stopping in its lonely song of limitless yearning. The moment that clinches a great performance of this symphony – which this undoubtedly was – is the eruption of savagery at the end of the third movement. It’s the hinge of the whole work, reminding us how far along we have come in Mahler’s chain-of-being and marking the transition from existence to consciousness. Rattle absolutely got its importance, and the orchestra gave it due weight and a sudden change of character. I checked the time at this moment (60 minutes in), which just happened to be the point of Golden Section in the timing of the whole work (approx 98 minutes – 98 x 0.618 = 60). Golden Section – the ideal of proportion – was a structural tool much used by Bartók and other composers in the early-twentieth-century. Who knows how Mahler arrived at it, but the moment’s potency is undeniable.

Nathalie Stutzmann was wonderfully Erda-like and abandoned in ‘Midnight Song’ (from Nietzsche’s “Also sprach Zarathustra”, with wailing, equally dislocated woodwind solos releasing us into a fresh-faced ‘Es sungen drei Engel’, superbly detailed and projected by the women’s and boys’ voices. Then, a long intake of breath, and the finale’s unstoppable journey, via those all-too-human strivings and failings, towards a Nirvana-like state of absolute certainty and bliss. It was out of this world – visionary, protean, glorious – and arrived at by Rattle’s faultless balancing act between retreat and progress, a classic example of reculer pour mieux sauter. How prescient of the capacity audience, including, I suppose, the twerp who broke the spell with his bellow of “Bravi!” at the end, to have booked up more than a year in advance.

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