Three Silences

Jesse Simon
jueves, 26 de febrero de 2015
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Berlin, sábado, 31 de enero de 2015. Philharmonie. Lachenmann: Tableau. Mahler: Symphony No. 2 in C minor. Kate Royal, soprano. Magdalena Kožená, mezzo-soprano. Rundfunkchor Berlin (Simon Halsey, choirmaster). Berlin Philharmonic. Sir Simon Rattle, conductor

Many people in Germany would have opened their newspapers (or turned on their computers) on the morning of January 31 to discover that Richard von Weizsäcker – former mayor of West Berlin and first president of the reunified Germany – had died. That evening at the Philharmonie, Sir Simon Rattle announced that the concert would be dedicated to his memory and asked the audience to observe a moment of silence. Everyone in the auditorium rose to their feet and bowed their heads.

Even without this solemn opening, the evening had the air of a special occasion. Mahler’s Second Symphony, with its large orchestra, full choir and ninety minute duration, is the sort of piece that resists conventional programming. Paired on this evening with Lachenmann’s brief-but-intense Tableau, the one-off concert was intended perhaps as the practice run for a programme that the orchestra will be taking to London, Paris and Amsterdam during the course of February. But regardless of the reasons behind the performance, it was an exceptional night to be at the Philharmonie.

Helmut Lachenmann’s Tableau – a highly condensed exploration of extended technique that billed itself modestly as a ‘piece for orchestra’ – started the evening in an exciting fashion. Although some of the techniques employed by the musicians were percussive – one of the trumpet players hit their mouthpiece to create a popping sound, and the pianist at the back could be spotted hitting the frame of the piano with a mallet – many of the sounds that made up the piece had a breathy quality. In some cases this was the result of air being forced through wind and brass instruments, in others it was the strings generating sighs and exhalations. In the gripping central section of the work, tense passages of silence alternated with near silences interrupted by the breathing of the orchestra. The piece was given a taut, forceful reading from Sir Simon and the orchestra performed what was undoubtedly a challenging score with tremendous assurance. It was a fitting prelude for what was to come.

Next to the Lachenmann piece, Mahler’s Second may have seemed the more conventional orchestral work; but it would not have seemed this way to audiences and orchestras at the end of the nineteenth century. Although Beethoven (and Liszt for that matter) had paved the way for the appearance of a choir at the end of a symphony, the scale and structure of Mahler’s Second represented a conscious attempt at something larger. More than a century later it is still a daunting work to perform; but when performed well, it offers the kind of overpowering spiritual catharsis that only a handful of other works can manage. On this evening, the Berlin Philharmonic and the Rundfunkchor were able to achieve something exhilaratingly close to the full potential of the score.

The commitment of the orchestra was apparent from the opening bars; especially impressive were the low strings, who attacked their opening figure with a physicality that bordered on savage. However the most impressive part of the performance – and this would remain true for the duration of the symphony – was the depth and balance of sound. The double basses and low brass were on exceptional form and, while never overwhelming, they added dramatic heft to the orchestra as a whole. Yet this muscular sound never came at the expense of clarity or definition. Almost all of Mahler’s textural details and subtle flourishes remained both audible and essential. But in the symphony’s most climactic moments – the middle of the first movement, the end of the third and the frenetic maestoso section of the fifth – the force of sound emanating from the stage was arresting.

Sir Simon’s direction was both deeply felt and, for the most part, free of any distracting interpretive idiosyncrasies. He took the opening movement at a solemn pace, but seemed to possess an intuitive sense of how and when to speed things up and slow them down again; there were, in the first movement, some marvellously subtle shifts in tempo that yielded great results. Only the descending figure that brought the movement to a close seemed unnaturally stretched.

Mahler himself suggested a break of about five minutes after the first movement. On this evening there was somewhere around a minute during which the orchestra caught their breath and the audience cleared their throats; after this, the final four movements were played without pause. The second movement, taken at a reasonably brisk pace, began with a pastoral serenity, but was shaken with ever greater urgency by the agitated strings; the flutes and double basses were both superb. The third movement proceeded with such unstoppable momentum that the sudden explosion near the end seemed less like an intrusion and more an inevitable consequence.

After the climactic blast of the third movement, Magdalena Kožená walked onto the stage and waited for the music to grow still before pronouncing a haunted ‘O Röschen rot’; her words were answered by high and distant brass. Ms Kožená on this evening sang with an edge of severity that suited the Wunderhorn poem well; her reading was rendered all the more poignant by the sudden blush of warmth that overtook her voice, but that had disappeared once again by the time of her impassioned ‘Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott’.

If the second movement had impressed through its accumulation of subtle details, the third through its rhythmic strength and the fourth through its unexpected calm, the final movement combined these qualities into a performance of singular majesty. The mysterious opening section – and specifically the introduction of the resurrection theme – featured exceptional playing from the clarinets, flutes and especially the trombones, who played with magnificent focus and discipline (one of the offstage horns was disastrously out of time at one point – a delay in the video relay perhaps – but the recovery was quick).

Yet, as in the first movement, it was the depth of the full orchestra that made the greatest impression. The death march, introduced by a terrifying crescendo, was astonishing both for its sonic splendour and its heightened drama — although that same tension was still very much present when the sound had fallen away leaving only the woodwinds sparring with the two off-stage bands.

The Rundfunkchor sang their opening ‘Aufersteh’n’ with magnificent reverence; even at their quietest, there was an appealing warmth and fullness to their sound, and when singing at full power they were as much a musical force as the orchestra. In the soprano solo part, Kate Royal seemed less invested in the solemnity of the unfolding resurrection; while there was little to fault in her intonation, it was difficult to locate any sense of spiritual engagement with the words. Magdalena Kožená, however, brought an austere passion to her ‘O glaube’ passage, and the two soloists did sound convincingly ecstatic when singing together.

It is difficult to say who deserves credit for the final unforgettable moments of the evening, although it may be Hans Scharoun, architect of the Philharmonie. The finale of Mahler’s Second involves such a concentration of forces that even the most disciplined orchestra runs the risk of muddiness. Yet such are the acoustic properties of the auditorium, that the combined layers of the full orchestra, the choir, the organ and the bells remained clearly defined. When it was all over there was a silence so tremendous that it could only be filled with the immediate and enthusiastic sound of applause.

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