Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in Prom 64 at the Royal Albert Hall. Mahler Symphony no 7 and Boulez Éclat (1965) a musically judicious pairing that enhances both works. But first the newsworthy bit! Lines round the block at the Royal Albert Hall, the hottest ticket in town. . Rattle is a National Treasure, as the Japanese honour people who've changed the world around them. Rattle transformed the CBSO and galvanized British music as a whole. He championed music we now take for granted as mainstream, but wasn't 35 years ago. He's an amazing communicator, his enthusiasm motivated by love. As Claudio Abbado said "What drives me is the love of my job, and the passion for things I find inspiring, when I get a chance to immerse myself , to deepen my knowledge of a score, or a book.......if I can deepen that knowledge, I will always do so... the starting point is always love". Very different conductors, but the same basic motivation, one which uncreative minds often do not comprehend.
The equivocal nature of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony makes interpretation elusive. Clues are embedded in the orchestration, so for listeners, as well as for performers, it's a test of sensitivity and musical nous. If a "symphony contains the world", why not? This isn't a piece where “received wisdom” has any place. The tuba calls, then the winds and smaller brass, and the symphony gets underway with the figures inspired by the sound of oars rowing across a lake. Stillness, yet also a sense of purposeful forward thrust. Though there are chords which scream turbulence, the mood is "risoluto", resolutely unperturbed. Here, the finesse of the Berlin Philharmonic paid dividends. It takes skill to hold a coherent line and shape it so well. When the tuba returned, strings glistening around it, I felt as if the symphony was somehow expressing movement in time, past, present and future seamlessly together. Hence the silvery trumpets calling us forwards.
The famous horn call with which the first Nachtmusik begins was suitably expansive, but I was fascinated, too, by the way the Berliners can do subtle detail: quiet bowing and plucking, suggesting mystery, images half-heard, half felt as if hidden in darkness. At night, the subconscious is released and thoughts run free. Hence the Scherzo, often described as a nightmare parody of a waltz. Rattle and the Berliners don't need to scream out "spooks". Instead a quiet violin suggesting a quirky loner, but not a madman, since the part is too integrated to represent selfish ego.
An important insight, since the very structure of this symphony suggests equanimity not psychosis. The two Nachtmusiks surround the Scherzo, like oars around a boat, firmly keep it afloat, reaffirming the sense of duality in the symphony throughout. In the second Nachtmusik, the concept is furthered by the pairing of mandolin and guitar, referring to troubadours serenading lovers, possibly unseen in the night. In many ways, this gentle movement is the human heart of the symphony and the clue to the real soul of Mahler, so often missed these days by notions that Mahler should be loud and neurotic. Rarely have I heard the final passages on clarinet so well defined, oscillating with haunting magic. Horns and tubas may grab attention, but these tiny, fragile moments are, in this interpretation, the heart of the symphony. When the Rondo Finale bursts forth after this stillness, the contrast is shocking, but that, too, I think, is evidence of the subtlety of Mahler's mind and of the idea of hidden mystery that makes this symphony so intriguing. The sudden switch might be Mahler's way of hiding his sensitivity from the world, much in the way people joke about things that hurt, deflecting attention.
Donald Mitchell wrote of the Rondo-Finale that “the violent, unprepared contrast is akin to parting the curtains in a dark room and finding oneself dazzled by brilliant sunlight”. Perhaps the sudden glare drives away fear, but not, I think, what we've learned from the ambiguities of the night. The brass are back, timpani and percussion pound and the orchestra erupts in full flow. A delicious flourish, then an adamant cutting off.What to make of this miniature at the end of a long(ish) symphony? Is it a wail of thwarted rage, or is it a last, sardonic laugh, suggesting the triumph of life? From what we now know of Mahler the man and composer, I'm inclined to go with Rattle's life-affirming confidence.
And back to Boulez Éclat with which the programme began. It uses only 15 instruments, and lasts eleven minutes. Not actually so very different from Mahler, who used large ensembles but created music of chamber-like clarity. Furthermore, Boulez employs guitar and mandolin, just as Mahler did, with piano, celeste, and vibraphone. For me, the connection between the two pieces lies also in the way they explore ambiguities and planes of sound, turning suddenly as if the music itself were a living organism. Éclat shimmers with beautiful lines,bell-like oscillations suggesting purity and freshness, the lines always alert to transformative change. It's mysterious, too, exploring its way through sound. Boulez learned, from Messaien, how to observe quietly, without rushing to impose judgement. In Éclat, we can sense thoughtful observation, as if Boulez were drawing his ideas from watching the movement of birds. An immensely delicate piece, but with parallels to the contemplative passages in Mahler 7 and its mood of secret mystery.
I first heard Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic do this programme in the Philharmonie, where the acoustic is better than in the Royal Albert Hall, even if the Proms atmosphere is more electric. At the Prom, the final movement had maximum impact, so devastating it might have lifted the roof. If the more subtle detail (like the clarinet at the end of Nachtmusik II), was lost, no-one's going to forget that Finale! A friend sent me a video of the applause, shot from way above the stage. Six thousand people clapping and stomping their feet in unison. Later, I listened again and caught Rattle's short interview about the connections between Éclat and Mahler 7th. Very revealing, perceptive, and definitely worth hearing.
Please also read :
Poetic Thoughts : Mahler Symphony no 8 Chailly, Lucerne Festival
Spiritual Mahler 3 Haitink Proms
Blazingly relevant : Mahler 1 Salonen Proms