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Lindberg, Mahler: Berlin Philharmonic, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor) Carnegie Hall, 13.11.2007 (BH)

Magnus Lindberg: Seht die Sonne (2007)
Mahler: Symphony No. 9 (1909-10)

Kudos to Simon Rattle, bringing the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra to Carnegie Hall for three nights, each one including either a United States premiere or a contemporary classic.  (Thomas Adés’s Tevot comes in the middle, and Kurtág’s Stele opens the final concert.)  Magnus Lindberg’s Seht die Sonne was written for the group and premiered in August.  It seems a bit of a departure—or evolution—for this composer, whose style is sometimes hard to pinpoint.  One friend described it as “forlorn Vaughan Williams,” and I can at least empathize, although I confess the sheer ensemble beauty of the textures amassing themselves was mightily seductive.  Lindberg’s three sections have the sweep of fantasy, and show an expert using a large ensemble to paint slowly evolving colors.  A rhapsodic cello solo caps the second movement, and the sheen of the Berlin strings may have soothed listeners who still long for the plush sound of Karajan.
  But I am not one of those.

What has impressed me in the orchestra’s last few visits has been its increasing agility with many different kinds of music, and its ability to come up with markedly different characterizations to suit Rattle’s concepts.  The vast first movement of the Mahler Ninth Symphony, gentle at the start, later blossomed with strange details (some might say “ugly”), helped by passionate playing.  Indeed, in this appearance, the orchestra (with considerable numbers of young members) seemed to be “digging in” more, with more visible body language than I ever recall.  Volcanic episodes leaped into view with cinematic power, before subsiding into immaculate pianissimos.  Bows flying at top speed contrasted with moments in which the stage seemed to be motionless.  At the end of the movement, a friend next to me turned and whispered, “This is going to be a very interesting performance.”

Between the first and second movements came a particularly frothy burst of coughing, causing Rattle to gently face the audience: “This piece begins and ends in silence.  I ask for your help in creating the magic.”  Perhaps that brief admonishment caused those in the hall to reflect on what they were hearing, and how it was being created on the spot.  Whatever the case, it worked.

The dances in the ländler seemed innocuous at first, but soon the horns entered, sometimes with deliberate squawking.  Winds found themselves beaten down, stressed, stretched thin, near death.  The strings sometimes had the ache of old age.  But lest one think the Berlin Philharmonic had somehow plummeted, this was all an act, as skillful as watching great actors onstage portray pitiful, ruined characters, and Rattle encouraged these brilliant musicians to do the same.  Rather than an outright orchestral showpiece, this reading was completely suffused with sickness and death.

The Rondo-Burleske was played violently fast—too fast, out of control, as if someone were running through the house screaming, clutching, sobbing, shrieking—a huge sonic gang fight.  The edgy playing sketched the aural equivalents of rocks, bricks, metal bits, glass shards, baseball bats, poison gas, and bludgeons, with everyone fighting with everyone else as the end nears.  The final flourish was like a cruel maw snapping shut.

For the final Adagio Rattle pulled out a gripping reading, with each climax topping the previous one.  Before the supernaturally quiet last few minutes, the orchestra conjured up images of a dying animal thrashing in the woods, of perhaps a barren desert landscape waiting to receive a corpse.  It was gorgeous, and also very raw.  During the final few bars, I could feel myself trying not to breathe as the strings, virtually motionless, let the violence leach out as the sound ebbed away.  And then, Rattle bowed his head slightly, and stood for a good 30 seconds or so, in silence.  Outside, the faint noise of an ambulance could be heard.  At first I found the sound intrusive, but later it seemed an oddly, extraordinarily fitting coda.


Bruce Hodges


Note: This concert was recorded by Thirteen/WNET New York for Great Performances, and will be broadcast in New York on January 7, 2008.


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