Thursday, 24 February 2011

Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic finish their London residence with Mahler 3

In many ways, Wednesday's final performance of the Berlin Philharmonic's four day stay in London was no different to the rest: the calibre of the orchestra's playing was of a similarly high order and Rattle displayed a fine control of the impressive instrument he has at his disposal, the expressions on his and their faces no less passionate than they have been all week. But, for whatever reason, and I'll try to get to the bottom of it with this post, the performance didn't speak to me emotionally. This brings home particularly starkly how personal and subjective such reactions are, others were clearly deeply moved by it, perhaps for some of the same reasons my heart was not set racing.

That's worth noting as I was clearly in something of a minority, with many in the Festival Hall rising to their feet at the end. Interestingly, for whatever reason, ovations like that seem much common in the Festival Hall; the previous two days of superb Schubert and Mahler at the Barbican did not draw the same response. At Edinburgh's Usher Hall it often feels like the only way you'd get a standing ovation would be to electrify the seats, which I feel is a pity and probably ruled out on health and safety grounds. I don't mention that in any way to belittle the audience's response, rather because I'm simply curious as to the reason for the difference. But I digress.

The first movement, originally titled Summer marches in, felt not so much wintry as leaden to start with, nor did summer's eventual advent towards the end feel especially summery. Sometimes Rattle's Mahler can seem over-analytical and while this was far from being the case in the 4th on Monday, it often felt that way here. That's not to say there was a lack of passion, at times quite the reverse as he wrung every last drop out of a passage or phrase. Rather that for me Rattle didn't connect up the dots into a convincing narrative. Perhaps the most extreme example was the contrast between the almost torturously slow opening and the hell for leather dash at the movement's close.

There were other issues in the middle movements. Here Mahler is constantly evoking nature and, whether it be the flowers in the meadow of the second or the animals in the forest of the third, such images should always be popping into your head, but they weren't. Indeed, many of the brief solo calls on the winds especially felt rushed or screeched. In the third movement, the placement of the off-stage horn, in the right wing (from an audience perspective) was hardly very magical, though one couldn't fault the playing. It didn't feel like they'd spent time sticking him all over the hall to find the best effect. A pity, as that can make such a difference, as indeed it did with the brass in Tuesday's concerto.

Contralto Nathalie Stutzmann gave a generally solid account of one of my favourite passages in all of Mahler, though she didn't send shivers down my spine as some deliveries of "the world is deep" can. In contrast, I can't really fault the fifth movement, with its fine contribution from both the women of the London Symphony Chorus and the BBC Singers, as well as the Choir of Eltham College with their "bimm, bamms".

The finale is always difficult to realise, not least as unlike many a Mahler symphony, he has not saved the pyrotechnics of the massed chorus for last. Much as with the depictions of the natural world earlier, the evocation of love just didn't speak to me, save in the last five minutes or so when I felt a passionate intensity. The trouble was it seemed to come a little from nowhere. This is music that should be tugging on your heart strings from the opening bars and the more devastating for it.

Rattle's recording of the piece, made with the CBSO, makes an interesting contrast. It is one of my favourites and just feels more organic, both in terms of its flow but also in convincing in terms of holding the work together as a unified whole. Then again, perhaps some of tonight's fans might find it flat. One isn't necessarily any more right than the other.

The choice to preface the symphony with a pair of songs from Brahms and Wolf didn't convince me either. Neither were they especially remarkable works in themselves, nor did they add much to my appreciation of the Mahler. When you've already got a piece that stretches well over an hour and a half without interval, I'm not sure adding to it unnecessarily is wise. They were well played, although soprano Anke Hermann wasn't much to my taste, having a slightly unpleasant edge to her voice and an annoying habit of making a sound like she was clearing her throat at the end of lines.

But, as I said at the outset, it did seem to speak to many if not most present in just the way it didn't to me. I suppose you can't win them all. Irrespective of this, it has been a great privilege to hear this fine orchestra over four nights and I only hope we see them back in this country again soon. Or, dare I hope, Scotland.

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