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, March 1, 2011

BBC: Urbane Mahler Third from Rattle - Philharmonie Berlin - 05.02.11

What makes what one might esteem a performance of Gustav Mahler’s longest, most epic symphony, the Third, great? Mahler spoke of purpose of writing a symphony to create (afresh) a new world. No symphony better epitomizes this than his grandiose paean to nature - the Third Symphony. Herbert von Karajan was rumored during the early 1980’s to be about to attempt the Third, around time of twice recording the Ninth. Claudio Abbado instead became first music director of the Berlin Philharmonic to have on disc done so. His DGG account, replacing considerably earlier Vienna PO recording (DGG), was less finicky about attempt to capture all detail in this piece. Although it captures line and eventually good sweep for the final Adagio very well, the depiction of this piece’s colors is grayer, in part toward effort to better preserve and sustain line. Even while still somewhat slow, it maintains momentum better than happened in Vienna.

From Simon Rattle, much elaborate pointing of detail, coloration, balancing critically inherent therein was beautiful, especially during the opening three movements. And yet at nodal points returning state of nature from ongoing thaw back to frozen stasis - one picked up, dry, matter-of-fact the nagging sense of there being little fortitude toward effectively steering all forward – Rattle here maintaining a moderately leisurely gait. One with Pierre Boulez expects clinical objectivity throughout, but with him one can discern, especially while working with an orchestra, ironically enough, more sympathetic than the Vienna Philharmonic, what he prioritizes is important.

With Simon Rattle, however, such is unclear; it even makes it tempting to start with the Third Symphony’s finale, for once, except that this Adagio is no better than just one of the two most important movements in this work, so also on Rattle’s behalf, I hesitate. One noticed less with Berlin than from City of Birmingham (EMI) pressing need to overtly scrupulize the weight of accenting, length of held notes between horns and lower strings to open the first movement. Intent seems quite serious both times; as things would then ease up, one could then likely reckon all this passé. Except for mild impetuosity to rush forward early on and through brass entrances closing this section, calibration between sections, marked by incisive trumpet motto here all made apt toward building a good somber landscape. Past first thaw, trombone arioso continued firmly, toward stabbing crest to its lines, all accenting underneath very supportive, with percussion especially expert at marking rhythms, articulation. Reach down to low D in the basses, well inhaled, exhaled emerged measured and full.

Anticipation of ‘Spring marching in’ achieved through strings’ fugato emerged with deft precision and supple line, promising much ease and character for march to follow. Amidst much beautifully limned detail, a lack of sweep and of swagger through marking like ‘Schwungvoll’ through then phlegmatically handled accenting subtly belied that all here still might be alive. Transition back to ‘frost’ was again dry - extra oomph off of which sounded artificial. It took descending string tremolo to recapture good scale and atmosphere - almost too late. For lovely vocalized trumpet and trombone solo, arioso, illusion of achieving atmosphere with fine depth, encompassing myriad detail, emerged well – through heavily sighing English horn helping capture moment of stillness on earlier Mahler derived ‘Weh’ motif. Bucolic mirth heartily infused ‘the Rabble’, followed by naturally rapidly hurtling forth Storm – through fussily accented, but still accurate percussion. Beautifully prepared trombone arioso turned out very fine. Ample scale and character then recapitulated ‘Spring marching in’ – all toward very festive, albeit slightly rushed conclusion.

Flowery minuet intermezzo, in which ideal is to go mostly weightless received deft, elfin touch - varying hued light shimmering through its textures and arabesque – nothing encumbering anything. If Rattle achieved unqualified success on any single movement of this, here it was. Tone from principal oboe was suavely dark - Berlin strings remaining behind, then filling all out through lush refrain – for all again to freshly emerge Bouyant spring,. Mendelssohnian, for trio sections was ideal, with gusty breeze intermittently coursing through – even through trio of freely accompanying flutter tongued flutes above. Weeping on lightly descending high winds into Minuet’s first reprise turned all childlike, naive. Artfully delayed picking up of pace, reinforcing oomph for second trio section refrain, provided moment of earthy vigor. Same device hardly worked well in Birmingham earlier. Equally fairy-land, helping close all this, was plaintive duet for concertmaster (Guy Bruanstein) and principal flute (Emmanuel Pahud).

Merry woodland frolic inauspiciously opened main scherzo. Plaintive higher winds congenially took turns singing ‘Ablosung in Sommer’, over accompanying bird call. Beethoven Fifth parodying trio emerged wittily robust - with panoply of trills springing forth off hard plucked pizzicati – strings during engaging scherzo reprise turning randy, mixed with brass toward - timed better than in Birmingham - the awkward brass octaves descending run – all sylvan then upcoming retreating violins, high winds. Slavic pomp surged off preceding klezmer accents - for coda framing opening first posthorn episode. Its manner of trailing in then seductively took over - haloed violins aloft, warmly replying horns ideal. Brief wistful interlude wafted by, anticipating gently breezy violins’ tremolo guided scherzo reprise - klezmer goaded violins and winds acridly in ‘irdisches Leben” mode then seizing center stage. Slippery trio section fugato reprise however de-tethered pushed transition into passing recall next of fine posthorn episode. Mysterious ‘Nature call’ from horns got rushed - violins above dry, pedantic. Leisurely gait coming off this was fine – fearful perhaps that more thrust toward closing strongly might emerge disproportionate to glib coasting by right before.

Hesitant to sit more still, Rattle began Nietzsche movement with quiet, steady pulsation, but nagging sense of shallow depth. Nathalie Stutzman, aspiring to light and covered tone simultaneously began hooty and flat, waiting for her ‘Gib acht’s’ to find better intonation. Expert Berlin principal oboe upward portamenti, from others often emerging as ungainly squawk, sounded here positively lyrical, expressive - perhaps not such a misguided restoration of tradition after all. Violins entered warmly over horns for interlude, albeit lacking some definition for their lines. More focused, Stutzman, horns accompanying her, beginning verse two, restored to this music at last some air of mystery. Until bearing down on ‘Ewigkeit’, Stutzman made more freely expressive what followed – rapt concertmaster Braunstein right behind. Rattle then slightly rushed fleeting postlude, closing this out. Light bells and chimes illumined the start of the fifth movement - boys and women expressively blending, harmonizing their lines well. Stutzman, until slightly choppy at very end, sounded darkly expressive, stoically, nobly penitential. Light trailing up to shimmering conclusion was very apt.

Berlin strings began hymnal Adagio - moderately paced – with fine solemnity and resonance. Off back-phrasing of consequent to opening lines, line almost gave out regaining antecedent thereof. Febrile lean upward was expressively made to start first episode, but ill advised then sudden switch to foreground for first violins - all affected, vertically episodic. Much extended tenuti over repeated long pitch back into first theme also sounded affected, threatening again to break up overall line. Gentle reach from behind to continue was fine, winds then repeating first theme better defined than the strings, then re-entering at fore too heavily italicized. Reprise from Berlin principal horn, concertmaster of episode introduced by oboes earlier gradually restored simplicity, capacity for line to breathe. Anguished climax on ‘Weh’ emerged well, but in context of much matter-of-fact, slightly layered on. D Minor reprise of once more recurring first movement climax did so stodgily. Pedantry characterized much of what remained – glib over how dynamics had been planned out.

What Mahler may have intended came across curiously urbane, cynical perhaps; return to being reliant on bad Romantic tradition might better fill out things than occurred here. Much well observed detail likely had found poor soil – a stubbornness to yield to innate quality and ability to sustain much long term at all.

The weightlessness of such Mahler appears, in eschewing notion of hearing overtones - sostenuto impetus expected to emanate – as more one arriving from a learned aestheticism than that of a neophyte. One thing should a BBC orchestra’s Mahler sound like this, but yet another should it be the Berlin Philharmonic Here seemed to have merged a British urbane reticence with a Semitic asceticism partly removed from its moorings – stoicism. angst informing Otto Klemperer’s distinctive Mahler most of all.

Plethora of detail masterfully calibrated into semblance of oneness from Rattle revealed an expertise that, working with Berlin, may only keep a handful of peers. It perhaps is very strong purist conceit to not be able to listen to music older than Brahms, barring adherence to historically informed, ‘period’ practices - denying that music should carry any (spiritually) transcendent quality. However with little to replace it, it could be said to be like attempt to find luminous the appeal of taking stroll down a Manchester or Liverpool road on a chilly gray day – to be satiated only by occasional ray of sunlight.

Might’ve we here not traded in one banality for something equally bland, milque-toast?

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