Entertainment » Music

Berlin Philharmonic. Symphony Hall. Boston: 11/11

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Sunday Nov 13, 2016
Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston Friday night at Symphony Hall. Photo credit: Robert Torres.
Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston Friday night at Symphony Hall. Photo credit: Robert Torres.  

Symphony Hall was the latest stop in what is Simon Rattle's North American farewell tour with the Berlin Philharmonic, the orchestra where he's been the musical director since 2002 and leaves next year. And what an occasion it was. Rattle, who has brought the orchestra to the hall three times before in his tenure as musical director, exhibited the rapport that only a great conductor can have with a world-class orchestra.

Prominent on the tour, which began in New York last week and ends in San Francisco at the end of the month, are performances of two Mahler symphonies - the intense "Sixth" and the lesser-known but no less intense "Seventh," an 80-minute work that made up the bulk of the program presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston on Friday night.

Why Mahler's 7th has long been the most curious of his symphonies may have to do with its seemingly unwieldy mood swings, which lurch from agitated marches to music of childlike simplicity sometimes within the same movement. From its first performance on, it left audiences confused, so much so that when Mahler came to America in1908 he considered conducting its American premiere with the New York Philharmonic, but instead chose his spectacular Second. "The Seventh is too complicated for a public which knows nothing of me," Mahler wrote at the time.

With his shock of white hair and almost impish demeanor, Rattle looked like he would be right at home teaching music at Harry Potter's Hogwarts. It is easy to understand his stature - conducting the Mahler (along with the brief Pierre Boulez piece "Éclat," that preceded it) from memory, he guided the ensemble with pin-point precision and they responded with an on-point performance that brought goosebumps during the piece's numerous climaxes and a sense of wonder during its more lyrical moments.

In doing so he brought clarity to the symphony's organic design, which moves from a stormy opening to a joyous finale, two longer movements that bookend three smaller-scaled ones (two of which named "Nachtmusik.") Each were distinctively rendered - the second, stately but mysterious; the third, a bit sinister (it would be perfect for a horror film), and the fourth, effusively sentimental. The rollicking finale is perhaps the most effusive music Mahler ever wrote, and Rattle conducted it at a furious if exacting pace.

"Éclat," which opened the concert, is a short work for 15 pieces written by the late Pierre Boulez in 1965. It is a largely percussive soundscape of mysterious beauty that wasn't entirely accessible on a single hearing. That it stays in the memory after the tumultuous Mahler, makes it apparent that repeated hearings are in order.

This concert marked the 12th visit from the orchestra since the early 1950s, its fourth under Rattle's leadership, all sponsored by the Celebrity Series of Boston. Let's hope when Ukrainian-born Kirill Petrenko takes over, they will return to Symphony Hall.

For more on the Berlin Philharmonic's North American tour,visit the orchestra's website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at rnesti@edgemedianetwork.com.


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