By Lawrence B. Johnson
NEW YORK — Gustav Mahler saw the composition of a symphony as nothing less than the creation of a world. Conductor and artistic director Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic took the composer at his word and then some in a scintillating performance of the Seventh Symphony on Nov. 9 at Carnegie Hall that seemed to embrace the whole of Mahler’s aesthetic cosmos — its past, present and, well, future-plus.
The concert kicked off an extensive North American tour that will take the Berlin Philharmonic coast to coast through Nov. 23.
Mahler’s Symphony No. 7, cast more or less in E minor, indeed looks in all stylistic directions. Structurally, it hearkens back to the five-movement plan of the Fifth Symphony, while in its musical idiom — especially the nocturnal triptych that forms its centerpiece — the Seventh reaches back even further, to the spirit of the first four symphonies, with their roots in Mahler’s settings of the Knaben Wunderhorn poems as well as the music of his own youth.
But the Seventh also remarkably prefigures that great, cautiously unnumbered symphony of songs Das Lied von der Erde, whose first careening poem, “Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde” (The Drinking Song of the Earth’s Sorrow), is foreshadowed in the likewise reeling and impulsive first movement of this symphony.
All these connections registered forcibly in Rattle’s animated and searching approach to the Seventh. Yet the conductor took that perspective on musical style and language still one step further, prefacing Mahler’s grandly orchestrated symphony, which runs some 80 minutes, with the lean concision of Pierre Boulez’s Éclat, a work of barely 10 minutes’ duration that might be characterized as the most intimate chamber music with a stunning component of percussion.
The pairing of these splendid opposites arguably suggested where the harmonically adventurous composer of the Seventh Symphony was taking music. If Mahler never embraced the atonality of the Second Viennese School, he had made his own way to a sort of Version 1.5. And the Berliners’ exquisite turn through Éclat afforded an intriguing sense of Mahler transfigured and distilled to an ethereal essence.
Éclat, which translates as burst, combines precisely notated music with episodes of aleatoric improvisation, all heightened and punctuated by the percussion cluster. Thus the listener experiences, if sometimes subliminally, the glittering bursts promised in the title.
This elegant and engaging performance also pricked up ears for the consummate delicacy of Mahler’s many intimate dialogues within the vast scope of the Seventh Symphony. The Berlin Philharmonic’s virtuosic wind principals made thrilling work of their many match-ups, notably in the three central serenades, to freely and a bit ironically render the composer’s term Nachtmusik. Although Mahler used that designation only for the second and fourth movements, the bridging scherzo is, after all, marked Schattenhaft (Shadowy), and the Berliners’ ghostly, dark, and skittering syncopations invoked something quite ominous around the edges.
Rattle sharply contrasted these three tableaux, which together have given the Seventh the informal subtitle of “Song of the Night.” Before the rustling scherzo came a grand ghoulish night march, as if straight out of his Wunderhorn years. And on the far side, as the second Nachtmusik, a long-lined romanza, lyrical and impassioned. (Was that not Don Giovanni, in a quiet interlude, plucking his mandolin in twinkling seduction?)
Much is made, and rightly so, of Mahler’s tendency to apply his vast orchestral forces in fine brush strokes. But the Berliners’ magnificent finale got at the heart of another plain truth: that Mahler could unleash the whole mass of voices in brilliant density, in teeming and exhilarating counterpoint. And just has he does exactly that in the last movement of the Fifth Symphony, he serves up another such tour de force to conclude the Seventh.
Rattle pulled out the stops, and his supreme ensemble delivered an irrepressible flood of crystalline counterpoint. Small wonder the Carnegie crowd whooped and cheered and all but pleaded for five minutes more of something. But Rattle was right to refuse them. After this Seventh Symphony, more could not have added to the sum.
The current tour, which also offers a second program of Brahms’ Second Symphony and works by the three horsemen of the Second Viennese School — Schoenberg, Webern and Berg — will be the Berliners’ last with Rattle as their chief conductor. He will step down from that post at the close of the 2017-18 season. Rattle becomes music director of the London Symphony in September 2017.
Lawrence B. Johnson, editor of the performing arts web magazine Chicago On the Aisle, was for many years music critic for The Detroit News and has written for The New York Times as well as several music magazines.