The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

BBC Proms 2010: Proms 66 and 67. Berlin Philharmonic, Simon Rattle. Karita Mattila ravishing for Strauss Four Last Songs.

Prom 66. Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Sir Simon Rattle. Royal Albert Hall, London. September 3, 2010.

Way to open symphony reminiscent of one previous is how the Mahler First Symphony begins – only vaguely referring back to start to the Beethoven Fourth. Opening to the Beethoven, even given its enlightened classicism is particularly mysterious - sounding most likely to introduce some thorough philosophical conceit into the mix. The irony is that what follows in the Mahler First – comparatively naive opening so evocative of Nature, gradual awakening of it all - prefigures more along philosophical lines than on the surface does the rest of the Beethoven. There is an elusive beauty about the Beethoven Fourth - the simplicity of design, even a turned inward quality that makes it more complex organism than it appears – so deceptively simple at its surface.

One writer attending this mentioned much fussiness on Rattle’s part at interpreting these two symphonies. If anything, here was a greater flexibility, subtler limning of detail from within, making the Beethoven Fourth a more thorough experience than achieved on disc before with the Vienna Philharmonic – disc that had the more overt 'period' accents, drier quality, etc. One might speculate that it might be some new found liberty on Rattle's part to relax his quasi-'period' approach to Beethoven to include therein nuance to more appreciably articulate the formal and expressive content of this music. It is certainly appreciable for Rattle to have made this kind of shift that in having developed doing so seemed quite the opposite of fussy or mettlesome instead.

Deeply expressive again, as on EMI, was the introduction to the first movement, with slightly warmer sonority from the strings of Berlin. Sense of groping one's way through several remote harmonic transitions was just about equally acute between both - both equally suggestive of so much else - for us to fill in the blanks what the rest may be. Rattle made bracing the opening to the Allegro vivace both times, but gracefully then yielded onrush through it all to make suppler rubato here into first movement's second subject. Line, with accenting beautifully placed in context of all else, through the Development, was free and secure - most expressive on turn of phrase where it counts. Ease into making well proportioned retransition also contributed to Rattle's success here. It was only with approach to brief coda to the first movement that playing momentarily sounded under threat of becoming congested.

The Adagio here opened less assuredly, with Rattle's marking of dotted rhythm accompaniment to flaccid assumption of opening melodic line all phlegmatic, until winds repeated it. Rattle then pulled in firm the louder reprise of introducing accompaniment, followed by winds singing freely the Adagio’s opening theme. Approach to very lyrically played second theme on clarinet was gently spacious, but also as to point one’s view toward gradually increasing sense of agitation under the music’s surface. Phlegmatic handling of the tutti during the Development contrasted with pensive, hardly self-conscious spelling out of lightly scored completion of approaching reprise of the first theme and then a practically Italianate, vocalized spinning out of melodic line in the violins off broadly approached arpeggios from lower strings. Militaristic accents, culminating in menacing drum roll to frame final cadence made incipiently arousing to dissent, rebellion of sorts afoot even here.

The Scherzo here began rushed, almost clipped, but fortunately less conspicuously so than on EMI. Such healthy thrust in and of itself is of course much within character of essentially a sped-up minuet with from the get-go plentiful misplaced accenting. Rattle made amply spacious the antiphony of broad spelling of diminished chords to expressive effect. Trio section, with enhancing contrast of swagger with cadential dotted rhythms, was warm and especially from among fully cantabile Berlin winds.

In comparison with the more doctrinaire relentless pace with perpetuum mobile of a finale with the Viennese, Rattle within venture of slightly rethinking what he had achieved before, did not undercut a constantly running pulsation to it by opening things out here. Less intimidating then was the less frantic pace for principal basson reprise of opening statement in Berlin than in Vienna. As recidivist as it may sound, the graceful shaping, limning of the finale's second theme sounded remindful of Beecham - of what he had in his interpretative arsenal by way of graceful turn of phrase to apply to his Beethoven. Thorough capture of internal accenting on closing theme continued buoyant and free - with insinuating subversive or revolutionary accent underneath - attempt for this music to break its bounds never much distance away.

That Watteau-esque coloring of how the Mahler First opened got caught very mildly self-conscious would have one not mistake this playing for Concertgebouw - as under Haitink several decades ago. Tempo was broad for much of the first movement - stillness of all to the symphony's opening very rapt; long breathed retransition in place of Development later brought all intensely close to a standstill while keeping anticipation alive of overt frolic to come - heralded with fine clarity here by consort of French horns.

'Ging heut morgen', once picked up by the violins, let all sunlight in - after purposefully groping long ascent toward it to close the Introduction. Pointing of small accenting in the Development and elsewhere sounded just like world as easily captured in Webern's Im Sommerwind as in any Mahler. Introduction of darker accents foreshadowing drama to follow later entered guilelessly, bucolically from there. Buildup to far reach from behind for change to blazing D Major, fortunately without turbo-charging either anticipation or arrival made for ensuing strongly characterized merriment all the way through too frequently odd sounding ending to the first movement.

Rattle then effectively worked into the opulence of the tone of his Berliners fully achieved charge of earthiness into the Scherzo that made shaping of it most natural with no exaggerated dynamics - even while slightly tentative on a few downbeats here - as opposed to turbo-charged rewrite of Beethoven 7 the Development section so often resembles. For a true stickler, Rattle might have seemed free with Mahler's tempo markings, subtle relationships therein; little there was to interfere with genuinely ardent, while lingering, feel to this. Even with some gratuitous italicization, vigorous reprise brought the Scherzo to a cumulatively, earthily robust conclusion.

Solo double-bass on minor mode Frere Jacques played it vibrato-less for so very ruddy a sound, even at minor cost to intonation. All klezmer, even unabashedly from ultra-gilded violins was then made of wind band march. Violins then drooped naively, wearily in making transition back. Mildly self-conscious was very covered handling of start to lyrical episode quoting concluding part of the fourth Gesellen lied, before soon inviting back feeling for the naïve simplicity of it all. Quite convincingly, if dryly characterized was a relatively acrid odour to all air about with reprise of 'Frere Jacques' raised a half-step - as to somberly recall 'der irdisches Leben' – from instead the Wunderhorn lieder. Besotted toned bassoon helped bring all to its dour, mildly somber end.

Pacing of agitated opening to the finale sounded here mildly held back, with direct feel for accenting this music achieved, if anti-climactically with arrival of Exposition first theme. The most trouble encountered here thus far came with anticipation of episode thematically borrowing from musing over the death of Abel near end of the first part of 'Klagende Lied.’ Rattle then chose to layer things on thick. There was the haloed quality with the strings to sustain main idea through this passage, but naivete of such reminiscence oddly got almost entirely eradicated. Zuruckhaltend to achieve Mahler's practically vocalized opulent approach to final cadence here became unfeasible. Transition back to music indicative of how the finale opens was slightly glib; eschewing wisely however the making too much of the two dramatic transitions to follow was welcome, toward saving up for greater to come.

Obtrusive holding back then recurred until stealthy reprise of march strands from the first movement brought all bucolically back to life – working toward festive, bright, never overstated conclusion. If mind intermittently got led to wander during the finale, this Mahler First still turned out a very fine qualified success – so refreshing to encounter such a frequently engaging approach to very familiar terrain.

Prom 67. Berlin Philharmonic. Sir Simon Rattle. Guy Braunstein (leader). Karita Mattila. Royal Albert Hall, London. September 4, 2010.
Central to this Prom was the generous heap of short character pieces one set each from Arnold Schoenberg and his two disciples. As Simon Rattle has said, one does hear with immediacy how moments from each set of pieces comment on those from other sets so frequently. Complete appreciation of especially Alban Berg’s Three Pieces would be to reckon it alone as complete - chock full of content as any Mahler symphony – as opposed to making mammoth opus out of practically too much.

Sandwiching Anton Webern’s Opus 6 pieces between Schoenberg and Berg made them seem shorter than they are. How much more their character, all well played here, would speak, should this set be played between stylistically contrasting works instead. All three sets of pieces presented were written at height of Expressionist phase for the Second Vienna School – whereas there was considerable variety of form and idiom in which all three men wrote. All fourteen pieces given in one long haul offers ‘atonal’ expressionism at its peak at level of concentrate. Trespass however of unwritten limit on amount musicians and audience members can partake will dilute what can be processed thereof - even with fastidious effort put forth here.

The oxymoron is that with an urbane quality already characterizing Simon Rattle’s music-making, presenting so much together here provided cover. The edge of hearing the dissonance in this music has diminished over time, yet it is best within logical constraints to make the most of it. Most certainly the fragmentation one encounters here is unlike anything before, yet anticipated in the music of Johannes Brahms. One virtue of hearing Schoenberg from a recidivist perspective is in how doing so can severely undercut deceptive notion that this music is atonal. This was most evident during ‘Das obligate rezitativ’ (fifth piece), but at cost of smoothing out some of the hard edges one still should run up against. Stern brass made implacable presence felt toward its conclusion, but with Interweaving arioso among various solo instruments hearkening back to the late period chamber music of Brahms – his manifold extensions over the bar line, overlapping each other at times therein.

Lack of urgency for cellos’ thrusting motif somewhat held things back for ‘Premonitions’, starting Schoenberg’s Five Pieces, Opus 16. Oboe descent to low trill gave off more droll irony than agitation, alongside dour low intoning from trombones, all making interesting take on starting things off. Lightly played, almost clipped figuration in flutes sounded though like a combination of being shirked off and merely decorative instead of part of cumulative spinning into the overall maelstrom of the first piece. Much the same held true for similar incidence during ‘Peripetie’ (fourth piece). Brass made oppressive, stern their marcia collation of several motifs – big recapitulatory moment in Berg’s ‘Marsch later to recall it. Testament to the virtuosity of the Berlin PO, the placed back audibility of violins’ ostinati behind loud brass was very compelling.

Simon Rattle picked up on fleeting introspection from solo clarinet early during Peripetie’ more than on making full throttle of very jagged strands of activity starting it. Rapid fire antiphony among strings, pointed by their upward swooping portamenti and equally fast repeat-note tremolo in the trumpets made for good violent end to ‘Peripetie’ - muted brass chorale framing all forebodingly.

Individual pointing of sonorities, colors of various instruments, starting with distraught solo cello on framing motif in ‘Vergangenes’ (second piece) toward continuing line through unison clarinet and English horn, was very compelling for the two slower pieces. One acutely heard the special trading off of individually pitched resonances between well varied instrumentation to start off ‘Farben’ (Colours). Intertwining voicing between winds, violins, and muted trumpet made very subtly elaborate chamber music out of the second episode of ‘Vergangenes.’ This piece however exposed the risk of assembling together so many pieces of such acute character. Emphasized during ‘free atonal’ Schoenberg are ostinati, other figuration that break in upon the overall discourse, thoroughly interrupt it, and can also distinctively hold all still momentarily - events Michael Cherlin characterized as ‘time shards.’

Having all fourteen pieces presented as odd continuum of sorts can deny individual profile to so many of such events tucked within many of these pieces – with it so acutely brief how they appear in Webern. One needs neither to enhance much nor deny what nuance is marked therein. Very minute off-beats in mostly lower instruments intrusive upon the stillness of ‘Farben’, on the other hand, needed a little more space to resonate, whereby they better insinuate all at state of verging on virtual collapse - Rattle’s pacing of ‘Farben’, to capture its diaphanous stillness, was still circumspect.

Webern’s Opus 6 pieces opened tentatively - issue being balancing the abrupt first piece’s urgent impetus with its delicate sonorities. The second piece, marked very soft, also got smoothed out, but with wide-spaced tuba line and cry high in flutes both very expressive and anchoring opening statements in a piece lasting less than two minutes. Rattle self-consciously scrupulized figuration through arched, belabored crescendos close to midway through and ending the second piece. Rattle phlegmatically indulged reach for stretto therein with unmarked allargando; the piece’s conclusion also needed greater vehemence. After delicately tracing the klangfarbenmelodie third piece, Rattle honed in on dramatic, very measured tread of the fourth - with how lower brass made their first entrance through tight engagement upward through trumpets - through subtly placed, varied percussion for buildup to its shattering conclusion.

The fifth piece got off to the best start thus far in the Webern with pianissimo, deep, close interval lament in the horn creating illusion of vast, empty space- with tightly focused pianissimo shuddering about in lower strings to enhance the effect. Leader Guy Braunstein’s flautando very high over winds placed far back, over low pedal in solo contrabass was particularly eerie. English horn recitative spoke eloquently over steady ostinato in low harp - followed by solo viola on free inversion to echo the recitative on English horn. Dark, measured briefly passing shard of ostinato in harp offset chords in celesta over deep pedal far back for a veritably remote, ascetic end to Webern’s Opus 6.
Hubbub informing middle period Mahler and Berg’s Opus 6, reflecting the instability of pre-war Vienna suits Simon Rattle the cosmopolite well. Impetus toward conserving energy however persisted through the Berg. Grandeur of this work is such with which the often formally astute Rattle found himself at ease - other than for thickly orchestrated fury midway through Marsch fazing both him and members of his orchestra.

Praludium began restively on combined pitched, un-pitched percussion. Curiously, Rattle, settling in, secured some feel of voice leading, accumulated well in Berg’s scoring, for repeated sustained concert E-Flat in solo trombone (marked pianissimo) that perhaps should remain for sake of its character, detached from what immediately precedes it. Supple feeling for the vast scale of even this piece led to Rattle lingering over somewhat extended arioso through strings and imitative winds in anticipation of a cumulatively achieved high C. Rattle pointed well the dotted rhythm conclusion to each strand of arioso, yet within a mildly broad, less specific handling of each. Doom-laden, highly remorseful brief descending triplets in brass and dissembling rustle of string tremoli made this piece’s conclusion evocative, foreboding.

'Reigen' (Round) featured spectrally lit shimmer through wind and violin tremolo, fine lilt to its waltz rhythms, and fine pointing of detail. And yet into the first waltz refrain one noticed air of overconfidence about. There was suitable flexibility in drawing insinuation of jazz out of the brass under rhetorically anguished strings right after still episode, marked by elaborate harp glissandos. Sustenance of tension, as in many performances of this, got compromised, through trumpet paraphrase - against enormous aggregate of activity - of earlier line in the violins (just past light string tremolo marked breather for remainder of the orchestra). Harshly brilliant descending flute tremoli against dour low brass, gratuitously enveloped, sounded assured; due to some fussiness with nuance however, the febrile line that courses through all this became slightly detached – in mind of effectively shimmering conclusion to ‘Reigen.’

The fearsome Marsch though started off quite tentatively– especially with Mahlerian trilling horns polite. Besotted quality for second, most prominent instance of this was polite again - along with carefully approached crazy offbeat swooping, lunging about from full body of divided violins to follow trilling horn accented restart of the introduction Delicate, lyrical passages received much warm response. Contrastingly, the mechanical accenting of ominously militaristic strut - complete through like-minded antiphonal response - got its full due. Healthy push for the quasi-recapitulatory statement in Marsch conventionally compensated for dense thicket to follow - until very close to effectively dissembling hammer stroke two-thirds through. Rattle, supported by determined playing, still pointed the most important accents through overheated struggle of it all.

Intimation of wide shudder across blood-stained lake - ahead in Wozzeck – was stirring, but grandiosely enunciated trombone obbligato - oblique reference back to the Schoenberg - sounded curiously detached from hazardous transition to immediately prepare it. Incisive hammer stroke cut off well executed final stretto, to sum up broad, sweep through pre-war character pieces from path-breaking triumvirate of Vienna.

Indecisive earlier sounded the Act One Prelude to Wagner’s Parsifal. Good estimation of diaphanous sound world Wagner envisioned, dryly achieved, still spoke forth. Mention got made over BBC of ‘orchestra without feet’ that Debussy might have sought as an ideal. With hall acoustic also likely to blame, some drawing upon overtones to support how this music should float felt minimized. Key motifs exchanged between instruments, sections carried merely adequate profile toward building any unifying concept - toward making clear any connecting line through this.
Simon Rattle made sense of translucent textures accompanying Strauss’s Four Last Songs while leaving some of the animation, agitation to fill things out, make for better contrast than for all to merely get smoothed out. Unusually convincing was his very slow tempo for the final “Im Abendrot.” Warmly supportive of Karita Mattila, all opened out once she started singing. The voice, with occasional dead spot, slight hollowness now hardly at all stood in her way here. In reaching high notes, she sounded slightly careful at approaching handful of them, but most of them still freely opened out, pleasantly so. What made this song cycle a real experience was the intensity she invested in its text.

I think back once more to Evelyn Lear’s Marschallin – available to hear again on Philips - the voice a bit worn but how she allocated what remained to wisely, pensively make matter what really counts – the words. Mattila possesses more instrument than mid-70’s Lear – note the abandon with which she can still invest her lines – remindful of when vocally at her peak just several years ago. In an ideal world, one could see Mattila take on the Marschallin, let’s say opposite Christianne Stotijn as Octavian – then for the two to swap parts for two nights during the run Mattila could probably still handle doing so.

The words here selflessly became ultimate raison d’etre, through all very effectively sustained line, flow of air throughout. Most moving was a practically erotic yearning to it all, a reach for the refreshment that taking, inhaling in so much provides – yet with taint of mild self-reproach, and deeply calm a resignation to what mysterious inevitably lies ahead. Note the somewhat straight tone, but as beseechingly deep from within Mattila invested her closing lines to ‘Im Abendrot.’ Even, acknowledged already, in the more heavily taken first song, ‘Fruhling’, one could catch Mattila’s lightly floated ‘Vogelsang’ concluding one line, and then her impassioned reach for glittering’ high B through ‘Nun liegt der erschlossen,’ - none of this merely for effect.

Very poetic, in ‘September’, was Mattila’s limning of the stirring contrast, imaginatively anticipated, between a brightly colored ‘Sommer lachelt’ and heavily wistful ‘sterbenden Gartentraum’ at end of one stanza. Such tug of d yearning very poignantly, insinuated, confided so very much. We have all heard Four Last Songs in fresher voice, but seldom is it to experience these so lived, so personal as to take us places we think we dare not tread in happening upon so sacrosanct, valedictory a work. Rattle was with her every step of the way toward making all sublime.

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