Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmonic are on their way to producing a complete Mahler symphony series of live recordings, of which I could only attend a performance of the 2nd so far – a pleasant experience that led me to consider that this is one of the strongest features of the English conductor’s repertoire. The Mahler items are often paired with unexpected pieces – last time it was Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw followed without pause by the symphony, and this evening the last two scenes from Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen opened the concert. As the program reminds us, both pieces ultimately speak of eternal renewal – as a matter of fact, the very last scene in the opera was played by the composer’s request at his funeral. In it, Rattle offered luxuriant orchestral sound and relished on the coloristic effects, sometimes at the expenses of his soloists – not Gerald Finley, I am glad to report. This is the first time I have seen the Canadian baritone live and he more than fulfilled my expectations. Although it is not a dramatic voice, it is so flawlessly, cleanly and clearly produced that he does not find any problem in piercing through a thick orchestra. Moreover, he has very crisp and vivid declamation and could find spontaneity in the difficult declamatory nature of these scenes, especially for a non-native Czech speaker – now if you want to know how good his pronunciation is, you’ll have to ask someone else. As for his diction, I am able to confirm that it is crystalline.
Those who like Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde have been very lucky – this is the second time in a relatively short time the Berlin Philharmonic performs it this year. Last time, Claudio Abbado had given a clearly analytic and exquisite-toned yet somewhat cold performance of this piece, one that couldn’t be more different from that heard in the Philharmonie this evening. To start with, Rattle favors an earthier sound from his orchestra and, even if he is not less clear than Abbado, the sense of structural coherence takes second place to the intent of extracting the last ounce of feeling from each moment. The result not only is a far more flexible tempo (with the occasional transitional bumpiness), but also an extra degree in intensity. I found it a difficult yet finally rewarding account of this well-loved score. The first movement, for instance, had a rather sensuous sound picture and moved forward impulsed by regular surges of energy that made the whole quite uncomfortable and slightly awkward, but never dull. The performance would settle into something less unpredictable in the middle movements, with chamber-like sonorities that never sounded too well-behaved and really expressive solos – again brilliant woodwind and French horns, but not only. Everyone in the orchestra seemed connected to a sense of story-telling and theatricality – even the accompanying figures in the harps seemed more dramatic than usual. In Abschied, Rattle risked everything – this is a piece in which one can always cheat with sentimentality, but not this evening; no easy trick has been tried. Tempo, accents, dynamics – everything served one unified expressive purpose. Sometimes, one would miss a more exuberant crescendo, while something more understated had been chosen, but the approach paid off exquisitely in the otherworldly conclusion, far more fitting in its unexaggerated feeling to the text than the bombastic gran finale sometimes preferred elsewhere.
It is curious that Rattle has invited Abbado’s mezzo-soprano, Anne Sofie von Otter, whose performance had been, well, disappointing. Her voice is rather modest for this piece, but I wonder if she was not in a good day last time. This evening, while she still has her moments of inaudibility, she was clearly in better voice. Her low register sounded more positive, the tonal quality was attractively velvety and one could see that she felt that she had enough leeway to concentrate on tone coloring. It was a truly inspired performance, very sensitive to the poetic moods and emotionally generous – from the heart to the heart. Tenor Stuart Skelton was evidently extremely nervous in his debut with the Philharmonic. I have to confess that his whole stage attitude was very distracting and I avoided looking at his contortions, fidgeting, bending backwards, semaphoric movement with the arms, you name it. The voice itself is very pleasant and warm and he is capable of nuance, but his whole method is a bit chaotic – his voice is often unfocused and he pushes too often for comfort. When he does let a high note spin and acquire momentum without pushing it, the sound is huge and exciting, but his high acuti were often matte and covered by the orchestra and cut short rather than rounded off. I don’t know how he sounds in more relaxed circumstances – I only wonder how exhausting singing the way he sang this evening must be. In any case, he could find the right note of raw energy in the first song and quite successfully scale down in Vor der Jugend.