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Berliners in New York (I), Kyburz & Mahler: Magdalena Kožená, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle, Carnegie Hall, New York City, 26.01.06 (BH)



Hanspeter Kyburz: Noesis (2001, rev. 2002, New York premiere)

Mahler: Symphony No. 4



Sometimes I am disappointed to find that I could only grasp rationally a very small part of the requirements, the instructions for the computer are too reduced and the result doesn't live up to my expectations.  On the other hand I get surprised by the computer, because unexpected consequences in complex processes can stimulate my imagination again.”


– Hanspeter Kyburz, on using the computer as a compositional tool


There are few aural experiences as pleasurable as hearing a relatively recent piece played to the hilt by a crack ensemble, and last night’s Noesis by Hanspeter Kyburz offered everything that one wants, and nothing one doesn’t.  What one wants are a distinctive compositional mind, provocative sounds and playing that sounds like it’s going to be the musicians’ last night on earth.  Kyburz, a Swiss composer born in Nigeria and now living in Berlin, yokes computers into his compositional process, and here has created a vast, pulsating tapestry with so many details that it is difficult to grasp on a single hearing.  (All the better to explore it in further detail with a recording.)  Huge masses of sound explode and recede, with oddly placed rests and many striking orchestral colors.  From what I could gather, the some of these effects were indeed produced with the aid of computers, although the entire score appeared to be precisely notated with no improvisation.  The percussion section is particularly large, and Kyburz may be the first to ask the Berlin players to use a pen nib, among other more traditional instruments.  (Don’t ask me to recall where it appeared.)  The second section, marked Slow; Held Back, was particularly striking in its use of harmonics and a quietly intense ending that seems to extend into infinity.  What lingered most in the mind, though, was the flood of spectacular musicianship from every single person onstage.

After intermission, Sir Simon and this often-amazing orchestra gave a sensationally played and thoughtful Mahler Fourth Symphony, bulging with tiny decisions that made it endlessly interesting.  Rattle gets grilled now and then for being a micro-manager, a criticism I have so far not experienced, either in person or on recordings.  If anything, he is committed to constant, joyous reimagining of the orchestral experience, and with many pieces makes very tiny changes that one realizes later were the right ones.  (His early recording of the Mahler Second was almost revolutionary when it appeared, some twenty years ago.)  Tempi, especially in the first movement, were sometimes different from what we traditionally hear, but at no time did they sap the energy, or worse, stop the piece dead in its tracks.  And two observations summed it up: the continually alert, intense and brilliant playing of the ensemble, and the obvious delight at the musicians in the tasks at hand.  (If you’ve ever seen members of an orchestra all but glowering during a performance, you know what I mean.)

One of the great joys throughout the night was the keen ability of the ensemble to play very, very quietly with crystalline articulation, making Mahler’s birdcalls and murmurings audible no matter when they appeared.  The highlight was the glowing, passionate third movement, capped with a gorgeous, rich climax near the end.  As the brass soared into place, the soloist, Magdalena Kožená, slowly crossed the floor and stood next to the podium.  She seemed almost frightened as she made her entrance, but it felt like a fear of the vast unknown of the afterlife, as if by reaching the podium she would unlock some strange door into the beyond.  Perhaps my imagination is working overtime, but still, this anxiety seemed a deliberate decision – and a memorable one – and the touching fragility in her voice said it all, turning the symphony’s gentle ending into something with a bit more sorrow.  Afterward, the entire evening lingered in my mind for hours, as I pondered Rattle’s more death-haunted interpretation.  It may not be quite as valid as the usual, more angelic take, but it’s a question I’ll be musing about for a long time.



Bruce Hodges



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)