Bold gestures to a long history

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Something old, something new: once again, Simon Rattle opened the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’s season with a world premiere and a blockbuster.

For this, his sixth season-opener, Rattle chose Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg along with Mahler’s 9th symphony. Though Lindberg has written plenty of music for large orchestra, this is his first commission for the Berlin Philharmonic. That the assignment brings him a special sense of connection with the German romantic tradition is evident alone from the choice of title. Seht die Sonne (Behold the Sun) quotes the final chorus of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, a work which marked the end of its composer’s relationship with traditional tonality.

It would be too glib to say that Lindberg picks up where Schoenberg left off. Steht die Sonne, which was co-commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony, is divided into three untitled movements of decreasing length. Lindberg certainly has more time for tonality than Schoenberg in his later years, and he has no reservations about acknowledging the romantic tradition which made this orchestra’s sound what it is. There are nods to Schoenberg and Brahms, long passages of poignant lyricism, and a confidence in the tool itself that speak of a calm acceptance of history.

This season, the Berlin Philharmonic turns 125. Lindberg’s music makes a fitting celebration of that event, an extravagant and glittering piece on a grand scale, full of bold gestures and big effects.

In fact, the orchestra has decided not to make this anniversary a festive one. Instead, the season examines the darker side of the elite ensemble’s history. The launch of Canadian historian Misha Aster’s book Das Reichsorchester, an investigation of the orchestra’s far-from-innocent history between 1933 and 1945, marked the opening of the season.

Lindberg’s work also has a dark core. The ebullient first movement has an undertone of sad anxiety, and the doubt grows as the work progresses. Even with four percussionists beating up a storm in the back row, a sense of melancholy pervades the piece. The second movement ends with a solo cello cadenza so lengthy that it is almost a miniature concerto, a mournful lament full of ethereal harmonics. The third movement is the work’s darkest, opening in the lower depths of the bass registers and rising to a howl of anguish before settling into a pensive chorale and slipping unobtrusively into silence.

If Lindberg’s new symphony is bleak in spite of its flash and sparkle, Mahler’s 9th Symphony is black beyond all measure.

It is bold of Rattle to tackle this, a work which his Berliners performed 52 times with his predecessor Claudio Abbado. It would be hard to come close to the transcendental transports of Abbado’s Mahler, and Rattle wisely does not attempt the feat. His Mahler has always been an entirely different matter in any case, with more weight on expressive sarcasm and nightmarish grotesquery, and less on sheer beauty of sound.

That reaches its apotheosis in the 9th, with its scorchingly bitter inner movements and wildly desperate opening. Rattle’s reading drips with vitriol, and takes sadistic pleasure in Mahler’s acrid mockery of Austrian society. The first movement opens with raw honesty, and moves quickly into full throttle; Rattle has a flair for emotional extremes. It is sweeping in its scope, and affords frequent glimpses of garish horror. The second movement is positively nasty; the third is diamond-hard, and equally beastly in tone. Only in the finale does Rattle allow warmth to creep into the string tone, and melting softness into the woodwinds. His glimpse of Mahler’s redeeming after-life is focused and crystalline, clean and ethereal, more hushed awe than ecstatic enlightenment.

The Berlin Philharmonic now tours to Salzburg and Lucerne, and takes this programme on to New York’s Carnegie Hall in November.

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