BBC Proms 2016 – Berliner Philharmoniker & Sir Simon Rattle: Mahler Symphony no.7

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Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker in Mahler‘s Symphony no.7 (c) Chris Christodoulou

Prom 64; Royal Albert Hall, 2 September 2016

You can watch this Prom on the BBC iPlayer

Mahler is the composer Sir Simon Rattle was born to conduct. That may sound like a grandiose statement, but for four decades now Rattle has been immersed in the composer’s music. Now he is at the top of the musical pile, on the verge of taking over the London Symphony Orchestra job next year, and this Prom was another opportunity to appraise the results of his tenure – not always easy – with the Berlin Philharmonic.

The results were little short of spectacular. To see the Berlin Philharmonic in the flesh is to witness the pinnacle of orchestral playing, especially when the woodwind principals are soloists in their own right – flautist Emmanuel Pahud, clarinetist Andreas Ottensamer and oboist Albrecht Mayer to name but three.

All were integral to a performance of Mahler’s Symphony no.7 that will live long in the memory. The work is often regarded as problematic, and sprawling, but in this performance Rattle and his charges brought compelling characterisation to the central movements in particular.

In the right performance the work still sounds remarkably modern given its 1913 composition date, using sonorities composers of today would struggle to create. Mahler writes two Nachtmusik movements, placed two and four in the five-movement structure, and here it felt as though we had stepped unwittingly into a magical garden in the heat of summer.

The night time flying bodies were out in force, realised through music that was at turns macabre, enchanting or just downright weird – allusions to the Habañera could be detected in the second movement. The mandolin and guitar in the fourth movement were odd in the extreme but also gave prime examples of Mahler’s amazing scoring, able to reduce a symphony orchestra of 110 from ear splitting climaxes to near-silent conversation in the blink of an eye.

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Horn player Stefan Dohr was rightly cheered for his contribution to the first Nachtmusik, a recurring folk-like motif that set the outdoor tone beautifully. The first movement was an invigorating Alpine march, with warmer moments when the violins swept into the second main theme, and a colder, steely approach when the march took a greater hold. The scherzo, placed third, had no such let-up, and was a macabre dance into the darker areas of the mind.

This undercurrent followed the music to the end, for although the last movement was largely jubilant, and let timpanist Rainer Seegers off the hook with a riotous opening solo, it frequently looked into the unknown. Nowhere was this more evident than the approach to the end, Rattle making sure the brief but significant pause and harmonic detour was signposted.

Rattle is often accused of micro managing Mahler but here his interventions were both instinctive and stylish, followed to a letter by his superb orchestra. The audience hung on their every note, and although some of Mahler’s phrases and turns of foot are difficult to follow and comprehend, this account was as strong and sweeping as any.

By way of a palette cleanser, Rattle and some of his charges began with the 1965 piece Éclat by Pierre Boulez. This was an exercise in texture and resonance, Boulez using instruments primarily for their reverberant qualities. It was indeed a vibrant set of sounds, but they were occasionally difficult to connect – purely because of the anticipation of the Mahler to follow and the exuberance of the crowd. We were there to see a memorable performance – and Rattle duly delivered. Berlin’s loss will most definitely be London’s gain.

Ben Hogwood

Rattle conducts Sibelius – Symphony no.7

Rattle conducts Sibelius – Symphony no.7, in the last of a three-concert residency from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, performing all the composer’s symphonies

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Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle – Barbican Hall, live on BBC Radio 3, 12 February 2015.

Listening link (opens in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b051czxp

on the iPlayer until 13 March

Spotify

For those unable to hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify link. Sir Simon has not recorded this piece with the Berlin Philharmonic, but this is a recording he made with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for EMI (track 6):

 

What’s the music?

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(c) Brian Hogwood

Sibelius – Symphony no.7 in C major, Op.105 (1924) (22 minutes)

What about the music?

This symphony is a remarkable piece of work that reveals more and more with each subsequent listen. Initially it can seem too simple in its melodic material or too dense in the sheer amount of ideas, but in fact it is an amazingly self-contained unit, like a single long melody lasting for just over twenty minutes.

Sibelius worked on it at the same time as his Sixth Symphony, hence the reason for Rattle performing the two together without a break – but the recommendation (from here at least!) is to make the most of each piece on separate terms.

In my mind’s eye I often feel as though this piece is a seascape, with the spray almost tangible to the touch. The music is brooding at times, and its complex harmonies can twist the human response, but it is an overwhelmingly positive way in which to finish a symphonic cycle. And how better to finish than with a C major chord, regarded as the purest in all music?

Performance verdict

Rattle’s interpretation of the Seventh would appear to be spot-on tempo-wise, and as is the conductor’s wont it picks apart the structure to highlight all the different themes the composer uses – yet is always moving forward to the next musical ‘signpost’.

In each of the three occurrences of the trombone theme he stresses its heroic quality, and the overall impression of the symphony is a positive, resilient one.

What should I listen out for?

The symphony is in a single section, and though it is possible to break it in to constituent parts, it is so compressed and tightly bound together that is it best to listen to it as a single whole.

1:31:24 – a single timpani roll ushers in an ascending scale on the lower strings. Already the music is noticeably broader than the Sixth Symphony.

1:32:13 – the wind play a relatively distant figure that assumes great importance as the symphony progresses.

1:36:43 – the strings swell to a rousing theme on the trombones, just about rising above the whole orchestra.

1:41:00 – now the music is speeding up, with the strings adopting a similar figure to that found in faster moments of the Sixth Symphony.

1:41:52 – the swirl of the violins gets gradually slower, until 1:42:11, where the trombones return with their tune, now more isolated.

1:43:43 – the quicker theme returns on the woodwind.

1:48:21 – the ascending scale from the opening of the work simmers, but there is a tension between two different speeds before the trombone theme returns at 1:48:40.

1:51:43 – the final section, which ends with what seems the simplest resolution at 1:53:02.

Want to hear more?

After the Symphony no.7 – if you’re on Spotify – keep listening and you will hear another of Sibelius’s orchestral ‘tone poems’ – that is, an orchestral piece that describes a particular story or event. This one, Nightride and Sunrise, is not so well known, but is a descriptive work that draws on an unknown sequence of events for the composer.

For more concerts click here

Rattle conducts Sibelius – Symphony no.6

Rattle conducts Sibelius – Symphony no.6, in the last of a three-concert residency from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, performing all the composer’s symphonies

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Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle – Barbican Hall, live on BBC Radio 3, 12 February 2015.

Listening link (opens in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b051czxp

on the iPlayer until 13 March

Spotify

For those unable to hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify link. Although Sir Simon has recorded the first symphony, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, I could not find this for listening. I have therefore inserted a ‘replacement’ version with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä on BIS.

 

What’s the music?

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Sibelius – Symphonyno.6 in D minor, Op.104 (1923) (30 minutes)

What about the music?

The Sixth is often glossed over in the course of the Sibelius symphony cycle, coming as it does between the very popular Fifth and Seventh – but repeated study reveals that musically it is the ideal complement to them both.

The composer himself said it reminded him of ‘the scent of the first snow’, or even, in a wonderful quote, ‘Whereas most other modern composers are engaged in manufacturing cocktails of every hue and description, I offer the public pure cold water’.

That crisp air is evident right from the beginning of the music, and indeed it is more a succession of feelings rather than obvious tunes that shape the impact of the work. The compact scale of the orchestra recalls the Symphony no.3, but if anything Sibelius goes further in his economical use of the forces available.

In an interview on the radio prior to this performance Sir Simon Rattle draws attention to the panning of the composer’s symphonies by such lofty figures as Theodor Adorno, who regarded him as ‘the worst composer ever’. Each to their own, I suppose, but one listen even to this lesser known symphony shows this is absolutely not the case!’

Rattle chooses to perform the Sixth and Seventh together, without a break, so if you want to hear them individually (which I personally prefer!) you will have to stop listening quickly at 1:31:20.

Performance verdict

This is a brilliantly played and ideally paced account of the Sixth, to my ears, one that captures the outdoors, the listener feeling as though they are stood at an open door catching the air.

The third movement Scherzo is particularly thrilling, but it is the nuances and detail that Rattle captures within the score that ensure each phrase and unit is brought to life.

What should I listen out for?

First movement (marked Allegro molto moderato) (fast but very moderately so)

1:01:45 – immediately there is a serene air to the strings, a cool but bright and refreshing sound. Because the instruments are high the music is weightless, the depth of the orchestra only really heard just over two minutes in.

1:06:25 – a wispy figure winds its way up from the lower strings, the energy levels slightly raised. This leads to a bright, chirpy sequence from the woodwind with more incisive rhythms.

1:09:38 – what feels like a cold wind blows in from the strings and timpani, darkening the music. The end arrives quickly just over a minute later.

Second movement (marked Allegro moderato) (moderately fast)

1:11:01 – a clear beginning to this movement from the woodwind. Flutes and clarinets are prominent in this movement and indeed the whole symphony.

1:12:48 – at this point the music does not have an obvious base, moving around quite quickly with small fragments of melody that are related but seem not to settle, like birds staying on the wing.

1:16:51 – the music labours a bit before the end before quickly breaking up. It is remarkable that Sibelius signs off a piece of music in this abrupt way, effectively adding to his music a firm full stop and a line underneath.

Third movement (marked Poco vivace) (a little lively)

1:17:10 – with Sibelius’s picture of the first snow in mind, this is perhaps the brisk wind on which the snow arrives. Strings swirl around before more detached rhythms assert themselves, and then the brass and timpani add extra depth with sweeping brush strokes.

One of the shortest sections of a Sibelius symphony, this is over in a flash, using a rhythm that rather recalls Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.

Fourth movement (marked Allegro molto) (very brisk)

1:20:53 – Once again we have an open orchestral sound, with beautifully phrased woodwind figures.

1:22:45 – the strings bring a more vigorous episode into play, harking back to the mood of the previous movement. Despite its positive mood the music still feels restless and unable to settle for long – until 1:23:52, where it takes a stronger root and now has quite a punch through the weight of the string section. There are now some more obvious motifs from the violins in particular.

1:28:16 – a slightly slower and more thoughtful passage from the strings, who come into play much more in this movement.

1:30:55 – the music slows to a pensive close.

Want to hear more?

A good companion piece to the Symphony no.6 is Tapiola, one of Sibelius’s last works – a descriptive piece based on a forest spirit that has an uncannily vivid description of what feels like a passing snow storm.

You can hear it on Spotify here (track 6):

For more concerts click here

Rattle conducts Sibelius – Symphony no.5

Rattle conducts Sibelius – Symphony no.5, in the last of a three-concert residency from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, performing all the composer’s symphonies

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Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle – Barbican Hall, live on BBC Radio 3, 12 February 2015.

Listening link (opens in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b051czxp

on the iPlayer until 13 March

Spotify

For those unable to hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify link. Although Sir Simon has recorded the first symphony, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, I could not find this for listening. I have therefore inserted a ‘replacement’ version with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for EMI (from track 4):

 

What’s the music?

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Sibelius – Symphony no.5 in E flat major, Op.82 (original version 1915, revised by 1919) (31 minutes)

What about the music?

This – quite simply – is one of the greatest symphonies of the 20th or any century. It is also one of Sibelius’ best known and loved works, being in a sense the sunrise to the Fourth Symphony’s darkness.

The construction of the first movement has occupied musical commentators for nearly a century now, debating its structure, and how Sibelius joins the music seamlessly from one section to another. All we need to know for now is that this wonderfully positive music.
Sir Simon Rattle speaks of this piece as offering a ‘revolution of rhythm and movement’, and saying how its ability to grow at a steady period of intensity is ‘not from any Western culture’. He likens it to Indonesian or Balinese music, though it is unlikely Sibelius would have heard much if any of these cultures.

The density of the music is striking, but this is not difficult music to listen to – rather it is wide open, a celebration of nature and the outdoors. In the third movement Sibelius specifically celebrates the swans, recalling an instance where he saw a flock of them take flight at once, but also reproducing their calls in music.

Performance verdict

The playing of the Berlin Philharmonic is beyond criticism in this Fifth, but now and again questions are raised as to how much the music is actually instinctive for them, for this is music they do not often play (putting my snobby hat on, I would say I prefer this piece given by a Finnish orchestra!)

Rattle gives everything to his interpretation, of that there is no doubt, but there are some moments where the speed drags and the momentum of the music is harmed.

This issue comes up most prominently right near the end, as the tempo slows – but at no point do the orchestra lose the conviction of Rattle’s thoughts, and the ending itself is thoroughly convincing.

What should I listen out for?

First movement (which has a whole host of tempo markings)

4:25 – the wide open textures of the music are immediately obvious in themes from horn and woodwind. A serene, outdoor atmosphere is set.

5:50 – the violins interject with a note that raises the possibility of the music accelerating. There are almost dual speeds at this point, with some fast moving music and some slow. This creates a wide impression of space.

6:44 – a syncopated theme on the violins. All the time the music is building and pressing forward. Still the music builds, the violins coming to the fore – like birds taking off.

11:25 – a big, hugely affirmative statement on unison strings

12:29 – the wonderful climax to this movement, where we hear the theme from the opening on the brass. At this point Sibelius exacts a wondrous transition into a faster section, seemingly without breaking stride.

13:29 – a tangible shift here, back to the ‘home key’* – and a terrific gathering of momentum.

16:45 – the timpani hit E flat and start a whirlwind of phrases all around this note, the music gathering tremendous excitement before rushing headlong over the edge of the cliff at 17:20.

Second movement (again a whole host of tempo markings)

17:48 – the woodwind begin an attractive movement that once again sounds as if from outdoors. The sonorities of the Berlin Philharmonic woodwind in this section are especially beautiful. The flute theme at the beginning forms the basis of the whole movement, which is a theme and variations*

20:42 – a lush and affectionate reference to the woodwind’s theme from the strings. The orchestral texture remains wide open, and the music increases in energy. The same five-note rhythmic figure dominates this movement (from 21:43)

The music speeds up considerable before Rattle puts the brakes on at 23:18. Gradually we arrive at a slow and peaceful close.

Third movement (once more a whole host of tempo markings)

26:14 – a drum roll takes us immediately back to the mood of the first movement, with rushing strings giving the impression of trees flying past on a fast journey.

27:28 – the horns ring out in a theme closely related to the first one of the first movement. Here the mood is more regal.

30:43 – now the music is much quieter and more mysterious. The shimmering violins make reference to the horn theme described previously, like ripples on a lake. Then the music slows rather.

Rattle now slows the music considerably, and the theme sounds again, this time on trumpets at 32:35. The full power of the orchestra gathers again to the ‘home key’:

34:50 – a series of six massive chords end the symphony

Want to hear more?

After the Symphony no.5, the best next port of call is the next in the symphonic cycle, the Sixth – coming up in this series.

Glossary

*Home key – the base of the music – that is, the note on which the whole of a piece is based. The music may journey a considerable distance from this note, but if a piece is said to be ‘in E flat’, then it would normally be expected to start and finish with music based on those notes.

*Theme and variations – a common tactic in classical music, to introduce a theme and then construct a set of different themes that derive from it.

For more concerts click here

Rattle conducts Sibelius – Symphony no.4

Rattle conducts Sibelius – Symphony no.4, in the second of a three-concert residency from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, performing all the composer’s symphonies

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photo Sebastien Grébille

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle – Barbican Hall, live on BBC Radio 3, 11 February 2015.

Listening link (opens in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b051czq9

on the iPlayer until 12 March

Spotify

For those unable to hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify link. Although Sir Simon has recorded the first symphony, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, I could not find this for listening. I have therefore inserted a ‘replacement’ version with the Philharmonia and Herbert von Karajan, recorded for EMI.

What’s the music?

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© Brian Hogwood

Sibelius – Symphony no.4 in A minor, Op.63 (1899) (38 minutes)

What about the music?

‘Maybe the strongest and profoundest of all his symphonies’ – the sentiments from Sir Simon Rattle on this piece, echoing similar thoughts from a previous Berlin Philharmonic conductor Herbert von Karajan, who described it as ‘upsetting’.

Sibelius had an operation for suspected throat cancer the year before the Fourth Symphony was composed, and although it was successful for many years his mind was in a state of acute worry that the tumour might return. It is this form of sentiment that casts a long shadow over the music, though some have also interpreted the piece as a prophetic statement ahead of the First World War, just three years away.

It is not an easy work to listen to by any means, full of dark shadows, wary thoughts and a great foreboding, with little in the way of consolation even at the end.

Sibelius writes music of great concentrated power through incredibly resourceful use of his orchestra, especially the lower parts, and by once again linking many of the prominent melodies. A lot of them use the ‘tritone’, an awkward interval that creates a great deal of tension. If you play a ‘C’ natural on the piano and follow it with an ‘F sharp’, that is a tritone – the furthest you can get from musical resolution.

Many Sibelius commentators have come to regard the Fourth as his finest symphonic achievement, because of the power of its emotions and because of the refusal to conform to symphonic convention. Not many symphonies end in such bleakness!

Performance verdict

The music of Sibelius does not always appear to come naturally to the Berlin Philharmonic, but in the Fourth they sound completely at odds with the composer’s preoccupations.

The slow movement in particular harnesses great power from the strings, the second movement throws short phrases around in an edgy dance of death, while the contemplation of the first and fourth movements echoes Sibelius’s insecurity and dread.

What should I listen out for?

First movement (marked Tempo molto moderato, quasi adagio) (moderately fast but also quite slow at times)

1:46:00 – Sibelius immediately sets the tone with subterranean bass sounds and a brooding melody on solo cello. Already the texture is thinned to a minimum but gradually the strings add weight to the contemplative figure. The warning note at 1:48:45 is telling.

1:50:13 – a short statement on brass that reappears frequently in this movement.

1:54:06 – a sharp volley of timpani ushers in a tortured phrase from the strings before the brass figure appears again at 1:54:58. The lower strings bring back their music from the very start of the symphony before the music subsides to a quiet finish.

Second movement (marked Allegro molto vivace) (quick and very lively)

1:56:51 – quick violas and a relatively chirpy melody on oboe offer the possibility of a much more positive outlook, but the music remains edgy, despite attempts at a few charming dances in the central section, and this edginess prevails in the exchange of short phrases between strings and wind. The end arrives suddenly at 2:01:23.

Third movement (marked Il tempo largo) (very slow)

2:01:55 – this is music of real desolation, as first flute and then clarinet deliver solos over downcast bass strings. As Sir Simon Rattle remarked, this is the closest anyone really gets in a symphony to capturing the loneliness Shostakovich was able to convey. With Sibelius however there is more anguish than dread.

2:06:42 – the cellos begin a long, winding phrase that starts in the depths but ascends right through to the heights. This is taken up by the violins, music of a heavy heart but still – in my view at least! – searching for a positive outcome. At 2:09:46 this music returns for the whole strings to an accompaniment of alternating woodwinds, exerting great cumulative power.

2:11:42 – again, the big winding phrase returns, with even greater impact, bolstered by brass and timpani, Sibelius finding strength in depth but with the unremitting darkness still present, descending fully at the end some two minutes later.

Fourth movement (marked Allegro) (fast)

2:14:02 – the final movement starts with barely a break, and it sounds as if Sibelius is trying but ultimately failing to find some happier dance music for the orchestra to play.

2:16:29 – a little consolation offered here from the woodwind and horns, before the strings offer positivity in their unison melodies.

2:19:22 – the possibility of a positive finish to the piece is building, the energy and momentum made known through bursts of melody for the orchestra and the start of a small cell of notes in the strings, similar to that used to generate power in the Third Symphony. Gradually however the music becomes less certain again, and confirmation of the returning bleakness is found at 2:22:27. Now there is utter darkness from the lower strings.

Want to hear more?

After the Fourth Symphony a musical breather is definitely required before tackling anything else – and so the suggestion would be one of the composer’s lighter works for orchestra, Rakastava– which can be found starting on the fifth track on this all-Sibelius album:

For more concerts click here