The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Simon Rattle gave a performance tonight in London of Mahler’s Third Symphony that was more perfect than I could ever have imagined, and more puzzling.
Every instrumental effect from the blare of brass at the opening to the ee-awing donkeys in the third, from the reverse glissando on the oboe to the ppp that precedes the contralto soloist, was achieved with a superhuman precision of a kind that Nietzsche (who wrote the words) might have appreciated. Never have offstage instruments resonated so well in the Royal Festival Hall. And the great adagio of a finale soared into a cloudless sky, no hint of a flaw to be contemplated.
This is an orchestra that plays physically into itself, the chairs half turned inwards, the players attuned to one another with symbiotic intuition. The Berlin Philharmonic may well be the finest orchestra on earth and, if the body language gives off an excess of self-satisfaction, the pride is nothing if not deserved. Rattle has done more than maintain this corporate ethos: he has hugely enhanced it.
The problematic aspect, for me, was the absence from the opening bars onwards of any of Mahler’s underlying ironies and savageries. Beauty was the object of the exercise, at the expense of a multitude of subversive suggestions. This was not a performance that ran deep. Rather, it recalled Herbert von Karajan’s stated preference for the absence of meaning in music. In Mahler, that reverses the composer’s purpose.
Rattle has come a long way since he first conducted Mahler in Birmingham thirty years ago. His recent recording of the second symphony was a measured advance on his early efforts, the build-up of power conserved with calculated restraint to achieve maximum resurrective impact. In the third symphony, on the other hand, he has regressed from youthful exuberance to a well-worked strategy that drains the work of the possibility of controversy.
Nathalie Stutzmann was the contralto soloist, her voice blending into the orchestra somewhere between clarinet and bassoon. The Ladies of the London Symphony Chorus and the BBC Singers never sang louder than lovely and the boys of Eltham College Choir were totally sweet.
The symphony was preceded by two songs, one of Brahms the other of Wolf, conjoining Mahler to his forbears. That, like much else in the concert, seemed a little too pat. It tamed Mahler, depriving him of the ragged colours of a musical revolutionary.