A full house, with many area conductors in the audience. The Symphony Hall stage unpopulated, different-looking—four rows of risers at the rear. An anticipatory vibe in the air. The Berlin Philharmonic (BPO) and Sir Simon Rattle are in the house.
This storied orchestra, famous around the world, first visited Boston under the direction of Herbert von Karajan in March, 1955. Since then, its eleven subsequent appearances here—all sponsored by Celebrity Series of Boston—have become must-attend occasions.
When the musicians arrive on the empty stage, they do so as a group, exhibiting a sense of shared purpose—“we’re in this together, to make music together.”
In last Friday’s concert, only 15 players first materialized. We were to hear Éclat, in its first version, the 1965 composition by Pierre Boulez. Out from the wings came the smiling, energetic, curly white-haired Simon Rattle, who has been the Berlin Philharmonic’s Chief Conductor and Artistic Director since September, 2002. He had received a knighthood from England’s Queen Elizabeth II in 2009, and many other international honors since then. So, “Sir Simon Rattle” is his present proper handle. Born in Liverpool in 1955, he wears his 61 years youthfully. His appearances as a guest conductor with the BSO over the years have been marked by very interesting repertoire choices and keen music making. And here he was with his “home team,” making what was his last appearance here with the BPO as its Chief Conductor. He steps down in 2018 as he becomes Music Director of the London Symphony Orchestra effective September, 2017.
Éclat is typical of the music of Pierre Boulez: precise, carefully planned, elegant, high-minded, and very much concerned with the interaction of instrumental sonorities. Sir Simon led a bracing performance without the help of a conductor’s score, as he would the concert’s following music. Jürgen Otten’s program note, provided by the BPO, tells us of how the piece concerns itself with the reverberation times of the 15 instruments’ sounds, and of the important role of the piano in this music:
…at the beginning, a piano chord is silently depressed and held to the third pedal, the chord is heard when (another instrument plays) one of the sounds of which it is composed; to its immediate revival when the staccato passage…reverberates the chord tones. As the other hand remains in a ‘hold pedal’ legato line, once the pedal is lifted, the echoing overall sound is the chord in the background…
Thus Boulez exploits the piano’s ability to sound sympathetic vibrations of the other instrument’s tones. Timbre, color, and the pure tone of each of the 15 instruments all contribute to the scintillating and brightly shining nature of this music. Among the more interesting instruments employed were a cimbalom, an alto flute, and both mandolin and guitar. These along with celeste, harp, glockenspiel, vibraphone, tubular bells, English horn, trumpet, trombone, viola, and cello comprise the instrumentation. The performance seemed absolutely secure and reflective of what this crystalline +/- 10-minute score demanded. When he was fifteen and a member of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Rattle met Boulez, and has been involved with him, pedagogically and interpretively, in one way or another ever since. He was thus comfortably in control of the proceedings. One can view Rattle as he conducted this piece in October here. What stands out are his utterly clear indications and full command of this score.
When the applause had subsided, the stage immediately filled with the other BPO players and the concert continued with the sprawling and extraordinary Symphony No. 7 (1904/5) by Gustav Mahler, a piece as far removed from the Boulez sound world as one might imagine. Otten’s note makes no mention of why Rattle and the BPO have yoked these two disparate works. I’m sure someone can draw parallels beyond the pioneering and steadfast individualism of these two composers. What made the juxtaposition so interesting to me was the amazingly different sound worlds these two works inhabit—one so rich, dense, and variegated, the other so spare, clear and reverberative. True, tubular bells, guitar, mandolin, guitar and glockenspiel are common to both works. In fact, only the cimbalom, celeste and piano from the Boulez don’t appear in the Mahler. But that could hardly be the reason, or, could it?
Rattle’s approach to the Mahler seventh surprised and delighted me. I’ve heard several concert performances of this music—really the best way to fully hear and absorb this amazing score. Of those I have the fondest memory of Bernard Haitink’s probing reading with the BSO from a few seasons back. Yet what Rattle and the BPO brought to their reading was an unsurpassed clarity and exposition of inner detail of which I’ve never heard the like. That the players, to each individual, were in total command of Mahler’s enormous range of written (and unwritten) demands is a given with this amazing assemblage of virtuosos. How their individual expositions of their instrumental parts were shaped, coaxed, and formed by Rattle was the evening’s particular revelation to me. There were no hints of bombast or “blazing” brass, though they surely and often shined. There were no passing moments of muddiness or tentativeness. Here was clarity, certainly, but also an enormity of dynamic range. From a muttered ppp comment from the flute to the loudest of fff perorations, one heard music “spoken”—clear and clean—throughout the entire ensemble. This could only have come after weeks of rehearsal and performances. The BPO is touring this program, last performed in New York Wednesday, November 9th, where the critics were similarly astonished. So it’s safe to say that Rattle and the BPO are truly of one mind by now across this broad landscape.
A word about this ensemble: it is unique, I think, among the very top tier of today’s European orchestras: the Concertgebouw, the Vienna Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, perhaps the Dresden Staatskapelle and Russia’s St. Petersburg Philharmonic. Look at the BPO roster. The names range from the expected German surnames through a disapora extending from Alexander von Puttkamer to Gábor Tarkövi, Daishin Kashimoto, and Fergus McWilliam. Today’s BPO isn’t rooted in a “local” sound or tradition; it plucks for its ranks the finest musicians it can find from anywhere.
And how do these many soloists sound? Think of a hybrid of an eight-octave Bösendorfer grand piano crossed with a 12-cylinder Mercedes-Benz. Yes, quintessential German brands, I know, but so is the BPO.
Back to the Rattle/BPO Mahler Seventh. Of much that was truly memorable, a few things stand out:
- the brilliant finales of the first and last movements – never shrill or coarse, but beautifully integrated, truly listened to by all the players so that the resulting sonorities were fully colored yet in balance.
- the rich, rounded tone of Principal Horn player Stefan Dohr and that of his entire section
- the goblin-haunted scariness of the third movement Scherzo, marked by Mahler as “Schattenhaft” – shadowy, ghostly, spectral. It was all that.
- the no-holds-barred commitment of every string player to projecting the music they were assigned. 1st Principal violist Máté Szücs was nearly airborne a couple of times with enthusiasm
- the uniform virtuosity of the entire woodwind section
- the palpable involvement of every player I could see onstage – each rocked and swayed with the music as if possessed with the goings-on
- finally, the cohesiveness of the performance. Mahler’s Seventh is, of all his symphonies, perhaps the hardest to make sense of. Friday night, sense was made.
At the end of BPO performances that please the players, the orchestra’s stand mates traditionally shake hands with one another before they leave the stage as a sign of mutual respect for what they have achieved together. If there were only one thing to admire about this orchestra, it would be this indication of admiration and gratitude expressed among them. This orchestra loves to play together.
Lucky us to have been a part of their world Friday night.
John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 37 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 45 years.