MusicWeb International's Worldwide Concert and Opera Reviews

 Clicking Google advertisements helps keep MusicWeb subscription-free.

281,202 performance reviews were read in October.

Other Links

Editorial Board

  • Editor - Bill Kenny
  • London Editor-Melanie Eskenazi
  • Founder - Len Mullenger

Google Site Search


Internet MusicWeb



Kurtág, Mahler: Berlin Philharmonic, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor) Carnegie Hall, 16.11.2007 (BH)

Kurtág: Stele, Op. 33 (1994)

Mahler: Symphony No. 10 (1910; performing score by Deryck Cooke, 1959-72)

One of the most stunning moments in
György Kurtág’s Stele comes late in its 14 minutes, when a glistening, complex gesture makes its appearance, like a ghostly vision glimpsed in a mirror.  The haunting chord pulses again and again, as if daring the listener to explain what ultimately remains inscrutable.  With a title that refers to a memorial slab or gravestone, the composer has created a brief yet monumental elegy.  The entire ensemble opens the work with a unison G, that soon begins to quaver, teetering back and forth in microtonal indecisiveness, before melting off in slow glissandos.  The second section, marked lamentoso disperato, lurches up with more force, as if something presumed deceased had suddenly decided to take different action.  Here Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic’s percussion section, some ten players, were having a field day.  The final movement includes what Paul Griffiths describes as a “liquid musical event”: those chords, which slowly progress until the work simply gives out in gentle exhaustion.  I cannot begin to praise this ensemble enough for the way it let Kurtág’s palette slowly reveal itself.  Sir Simon believes it a masterpiece—I do, too—and in a reading like this it is easy to see why.

Following performances earlier in the week of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde, the orchestra ended its week with an aching reading of the Tenth Symphony.  As many are aware, the composer only completed the opening adagio, leaving scholars to fill in the blanks.  Deryck Cooke’s is the version most widely used, and becomes more persuasive with each hearing.  To those who quibble that it’s not “real Mahler,” I would only reply that, given the choice of hearing this work or not, I’d prefer to hear it.  If it ultimately sounds like say, “92% Mahler,” I still want that 92 per cent.

The violas, all alone, open the piece with a heartbreaking extended line, which leads to the piercing chromatic main body of the Adagio.  Wave after wave of climaxes lead to one of the repertoire’s most famous chords, a huge pile-up that has the ability to stop the ear and heart in their tracks.  Harmonically the work is like a small boat, pushing off from the dock of tonality, drifting farther and farther away.  As the work treads through its five movements, the desolation only seems to increase: it is a slow descent into the weak tremors of desiccation and death, morbidly painted with an enormous range of colors.  In the final movement, sharp drumbeats sound like gunfire.  Rattle placed the percussionist offstage, giving a softer, more ominous edge to the reverberating booms, and the audience complied with stunned silence.  As in the Ninth the other night, the mood seemed to venture far afield, with memories of the previous movements crowding in for attention, however briefly.  But the peaceful ending brings us back, albeit not to a place where we might have thought we’d end up.

Given the quality of musicianship around the world and the huge numbers of players flooding into orchestras everywhere, I keep saying that the Berlin Philharmonic isn’t necessarily “the best orchestra in the world” (as opposed to “one of” the best).  But with programming like these three concerts, and playing of this caliber, I’ll gladly shut up for awhile.

Bruce Hodges


Back to Top                                                    Cumulative Index Page