ENDNOTES, 4th September 2016
The Proms: Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, performing Boulez and Mahler
Each year at the Proms, certain performances stand out and provide the landmarks of the season. Last year, the Sibelius cycle embodied the 2015 Proms for many of us, and I still remember the overwhelming impact that Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra made in 1981, in the hands of Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony. On Friday 2nd September, another legendary partnership took to the platform at the Royal Albert Hall – the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of their first-ever British chief conductor, Sir Simon Rattle (a conductor whose dazzling career began in the early-1980s with an apprenticeship role with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, followed by years of dedication and achievement in Birmingham with the CBSO).
A packed Royal Albert Hall and a heartfelt welcome from the Proms audience demonstrated the affection and respect in which Sir Simon is held, but of course, the prospect of hearing the Berlin Philharmonic – the ensemble of Furtwängler and Karajan, and perhaps the greatest orchestra in the world – also contributed to the excitement. The Berliners performed two works: the short, beguiling Éclat written in 1965 by Pierre Boulez (for this, a chamber-sized ensemble of just 15 players was required) and then the main work of the evening, the massive full-orchestral dreamscape and phantasmagoria that is the Symphony No. 7 (1904-5) by Gustav Mahler.
Éclat typifies the music of Boulez: a musical language in which there is no trace of the tunes and recognisable structures of classicism, romanticism and even early modernism, but which – even in its pure abstraction – manages to convey a brilliant craftsmanship of sound; with piano (which begins the work) percussion and woodwind piercing the air, as if in some odd dream in which notes of music appear and disappear, like fleeting, disjointed memories. The definition of the word éclat (from the New French Dictionary) is as wide-ranging as the piece itself – “a sudden bursting… a crash, clap, peal” – or better still – “sudden uproar, shiver, brightness, glare, glitter”. The Proms programme note (expertly written by Paul Griffiths) also refers to the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, who wrote of the “pure éclat” of a swan breaking free of ice on a lake – Mallarmé being one of the poets who inspired Boulez.
Sixty years before Boulez was forging his new musical language, Gustav Mahler emerged as the re-creator of symphonic form: his ardent post-Wagnerian and Brucknerian romanticism, shaped and tinged by a mixture of nature-sounds, legends, poems and the ghosts of children; a heady cocktail of psychological disturbances, yet towered over by immense landscapes in which unsettling thoughts appear. Such is the soundscape of his extraordinary five-movement Seventh Symphony. A languid, but tense opening – a moment inspired by the sight and feel of the movement of oars on a lake in Carinthia – gives the symphony its slow-breathing launch, the composer then considering numerous, sometimes fleeting ideas, which give rise to dizzy, unresolved passages, and to climaxes that end abruptly in nothingness. And yet, in all of this circuitous exploration, a purpose gradually emerges – a great striding as if the whole orchestra is over-heating, to an astonishing, blazing ending – music made to perfection for the effulgent brass instruments of the Berlin Philharmonic. In this first movement of massive steps and peaks, the air suddenly clears to give way to chamber-like sections of music: precursors, almost, of the abstractions and éclats of Boulez; as beautifully-etched sounds, describing ice or crystal, or a distant horn or trumpet call – or hollow clang of cow-bell, hang delicately in the air – making us see vast distances and feel the heady sensation of high altitudes. Sir Simon Rattle shaped these transcendental interludes with profound sensitivity: the tension in the air was palpable – it was as if the thin sheet of sound could snap at any point.
The Seventh Symphony is probably best known for its unusual central section: three Nachtmusik movements, each one offering a miniature symphonic story in itself – from the commanding and sinister horn-calls of the shadow-filled first (the second movement of the whole symphony), to the shaking dances of death, and fiddler and mandolin-accompanied reflections of the remaining pair. Interestingly enough, it was this part of the work which Mahler first completed: inspiration for the opening eluding him, until that chance visit to Krumpendorf, Carinthia, led to the successful shaping of the great Langsam (Adagio).
Finally, the great Rondo that takes the symphony to its ringing, chiming resolution – and here the orchestra and conductor drew on great reserves of energy. Find the power they certainly did: from the martial-sounding timpani “fanfare” with horns roaring, to the one other great, affirmative brass chorale – about halfway through the movement. My preferred version on disc of Mahler 7 comes from the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Lorin Maazel – a reading of absolute cogency and mastery, captured by CBS Records. This latter performance is characterised by a Teutonic heaviness of sound, weighed down with strong, almost lugubrious feeling. But in their Albert Hall performance, the Berliners and Rattle discovered a silkier side to the score: smooth and delicate strings, with many of the heavier passages gaining from a quicker tempo – mercury and velvet, almost, appearing in the playing.
This was a landmark Prom, a memorable visit by a great orchestral partnership, and a symphony from Mahler that embraced all of human emotion.
STUART MILLSON is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review