Although the Salzburg Festival still runs a few more days, my ticket collection ended tonight… and what a way to end. Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic returned to the Great Festival House and brought Mahler‘s Seventh Symphony with them.
They provided a perfect balance of tension and celebration: here a dance, there a march, and over there a lullaby – but all threatened by the struggle of life. The orchestra bounced effortlessly from one concept to the other, while simultaneously balancing night and day, darkness and light, joy and trepidation. Many have failed to understand this symphony, and have criticized the final movement in particular for failing to resolve: but it does resolve, especially when crafted as Rattle did tonight. It happens to be one of my favorite movements in Mahler’s symphonies, with its great chorales striding from the darkness to proclaim to the world that it may be dark but we live – indeed, we have danced, marched, and sung lullabies.
Less commented is the original inspiration: Mahler’s conservatory classmate (and roommate) when they studied together with Bruckner was Hans Rott, who went insane and died aged 25. Bruckner (and Mahler too) had regarded him as more talented than Mahler. Rott completed only one symphony (which I had only known from recordings until I finally heard it live last year), elements of which later showed up as inspiration for some of Mahler’s works. And indeed the final movement chorales in the Seventh Symphony grew out of Rott’s. In life, Rott had failed (and was locked up in the asylum). In death, it seems he has triumphed on the wide open spaces of Mahler’s Seventh.
Of course, it takes a perfomance of such clarity as Rattle and the Berliners gave tonight in order to hear this.
For some reason, they chose to preface the symphony with a short pile of musical notes spilled on paper by Pierre Boulez: Éclat. Boulez, in his roles both as composer and as conductor carried on the French effete tradition of distilling all of the essence out of art (in this case, music) and then also throwing out the substance, so that nothing of value remains. And so it was with this opening work. Seriously, what was the point? Fortunately, it was short and easily forgotten when the Mahler arrived.
It was third time lucky this year with the Berlin Philharmonic. They underwhelmed me in Vienna and Berlin in May, but in Salzburg this afternoon they hit their stride for the closing concert of the Festival. Simon Rattle took the podium.
Somehow I had never seen Simon Rattle nor heard the Berlin Philharmonic live until they visited the Musikverein tonight. They were very good, but not as good as anticipated, which made for a disappointing first listen.
The concert opened with Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta – or a muddle pretending to be that work. The trumpet choir on the Musikverein organ balcony behind the orchestra looked lost and unprepared. Perhaps they have practiced in a semi-circle and not a line where they cannot see each other (although they had an unobstructed view of Rattle). I can be sympathetic if this is the case, as it happened to me in a brass quartet during my senior year at Exeter, but I would hope there is a big difference in preparation time and quality between an amateur high school brass quartet and the Berlin Philharmonic. The rest of the orchestra tried to recover somewhat, but this is a difficult syncopated piece, and they never quite sounded like they got it together. As the Sinfonietta raced to its finale, the musicians held on for dear life, hoping to get all of the notes out at some point, no matter if at the right point.
After the intermission, the orchestra regrouped for Bruckner’s 7th Symphony. This one they got together for, and produced very fine sounds. But Bruckner is meant to be emotion-shattering, allowing a glimpse of heaven – whereas tonight’s performance, though technically flawless, provided no such thing. Where the first movement should wash the audience in great waves of sound, this performance just had sound, fluctuating tensely. The funeral movement – composed when Bruckner learned of the death of Richard Wagner, whose musical advances freed him to conceive of another world of possibilities – should reduce the audience to the tears Bruckner had in his eyes when he wrote it, but tonight’s version showed no emotion. This was not the blockish interpretation of Bruckner standard from such Prussian oompahs as Christian Thielemann, rather indeed a fuller and better attempt, but nevertheless missing a soul.
The audience gave a loud applause, but I heard a lot of German accents in the crowd. The Austrians headed for the doors.