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Theatre & Performance Simon Rattle and Berlin Philharmonic: A stunning take on Mahler’s Seventh

Sir Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic, at Roy Thomson Hall.

Jag Gundu for the Roy Thomson Hall Archives

Artist
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Venue
Roy Thomson Hall
City
Toronto
Date
Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Toronto got a chance to hear one of the great orchestras in the world Tuesday night when Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic took to the stage at Roy Thomson Hall for the first of two concerts this week.

And the Berlin Phil was stunning, but not necessarily for the reasons you'd expect. They don't overwhelm with power, the way the Kirov does when Valery Gergiev parades it across the platform like a thousand tanks parading across Red Square on May Day. They didn't provide the kind of silky perfect ensemble playing the Vienna Philharmonic provides, a bath in soft, warm caramel.

The Berlin Philharmonic was great because its playing was so transparent, so clear, so approachable, with 100 or so musicians performing as an organism with one heart, one body, one brain. It's not that the orchestra did not have power, à la the Kirov, or warmth, like Vienna. They demonstrated all these qualities, and more, when needed. But overwhelmingly, they let us experience what happens in an orchestra when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, when everything is balanced to produce a complete effect – and overwhelming is the right word to describe the result.

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Most of the credit for this, one assumes, must go to Rattle and his decade-and-a-half tenure with the orchestra, now coming to an end. Rattle has the ability to see through a score, to X-ray it to find hidden structural principles that help guide him to a perfectly logical, seamless, yet passionate reading of the music he plays. And nowhere was this more evident than in his performance of Mahler's Seventh Symphony, which was the main work on the program Tuesday night.

The Seventh is Mahler's problem child, a confusing work, even for Mahler enthusiasts, with a first movement that teeters precipitously on the brink of atonality, a triptych of middle movements – two Nachtmusiks flanking a surrealistic Scherzo – and a final Rondo that together veer and skitter and dance all over the emotional landscape, piling one musical idea on top of another in dreamlike, almost hallucinatory profusion.

Rattle did the impossible – he made it all make musical sense. And he did so, to my ear, by underplaying the contrasts so endemic to Mahler's musical palette, by forcing us and his musicians to consider the long game, the through line of emotion and musical logic that underlies all of Mahler's complex, gargantuan musical thinking.

Many conductors, perhaps through sheer frustration and incomprehension, overdo all of Mahler's quadruple fortes and hairpin turns of mood and texture. The net effect is always to make the music about Mahler, to overemphasize his well-known spiritual neuroses, so that the portrait of the composer – that baleful expression, the vein in his forehead throbbing – hovers constantly, ghost-like, over his music.

Rattle took Mahler out of the picture by presenting us not him, but his music. He did so through sheer intellectual willpower, by helping us hear connections in the score, balancing moments from movement to movement, illuminating an overall shape. And he was aided in this by superb playing from his team – whether it be from individual wind and brass players with a note here, or a soaring phrase there, or a perfectly balanced string section, or a percussion complement that could pound it out when necessary, but hold back when needed. The result, from 80 minutes of clarity, logic and transparency, was an emotional experience that was the opposite – liberating, joyous, ecstatic.

Rattle preceded the 80-minute Mahler with the only other work on the program, the 10-minute 1965 version of Eclat by Pierre Boulez. What an inspired choice. Eclat sounds like some extra-sophisticated computer algorithm analyzed the Mahler Seventh and reduced it down to its absolute essence. Full of quiet moments of crystalline sonorities, the ultra-modern Eclat, thoroughly "twelve-tone," nonetheless sounded exactly like what it was – the spiritual heir to the early 20th-century agonies of Gustav Mahler, cooled way down, and viewed from just outside the earth's teeming atmosphere.

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