Concert Review: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra at Symphony Hall

The biggest musical takeaway of the night was the sheer brilliance of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’s playing, which, simply put, is the gold standard.

Photo: Robert Torres

Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston Friday night at Symphony Hall. Photo credit: Robert Torre. Photo: Robert Torres.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

At the end of a week that desperately needed for something positive to happen, thank goodness the Celebrity Series had the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO) coming to town for the first time since 2009. Sir Simon Rattle and his orchestra, now in the middle of an American tour, brought with them a typically thoughtful, if compact, program of pieces by Pierre Boulez and Gustav Mahler. If they didn’t reconcile all of the challenges that the last few days presented, they at least provided a welcome distraction and the reminder that, the more you look out at and embrace the wider world, the smaller it becomes and the more there is in which to take comfort.

Today’s BPO demonstrates that in myriad ways. It’s a far cry from Herbert von Karajan’s old-school band. The roster is impressively young and decidedly cosmopolitan: there are at least a dozen nationalities represented in its ranks and it’s abundantly clear from the interactions of the players on stage that they love performing together. Indeed, at many points during Friday’s performance of Mahler’s gigantic Symphony no. 7, it was an open question as to what marked the dividing line between where Rattle’s conducting ended and where a sort of enormous chamber concert began.

The biggest musical takeaway of the night was related to that. It had to do with the sheer brilliance of the group’s ensemble playing, which, simply put, is the gold standard. The orchestra’s articulations are uniform. The blend between instruments alone and in combination is impeccably calibrated. The BPO’s tone – both from soloists and full sections – is staggeringly consistent and warm. And the overall balance between instrumental families is virtually flawless. It’s a style of playing that lends itself well to pretty much the whole repertoire, but particularly benefits the music of Mahler.

And Rattle’s handle on Mahler is, generally, quite strong. Sometimes he has his idiosyncratic moments with the composer (then again, who doesn’t?), but, overall, Mahler’s sprawling forms, nacreous scoring, and deep reservoirs of expression bring out Rattle’s best. They sure did on Friday in a spectacular reading of the enormous (and sometimes downright weird) Seventh.

For one, this reading delineated the music’s wild contrasts of style, mood, and texture as clearly as any I’ve ever heard. The sheer zaniness of Mahler’s mixing of high and low – wonderfully typified by the bar-room-waltz-second theme of the second movement – sang with real wit and, often enough, honest strangeness.

This interpretation also featured plenty of tension, both within the music and between conductor and orchestra, who seemed to have slightly varying ideas about what they wanted to do, especially in the middle movements. Rattle won out for some of them, though it didn’t always lead to the night’s best moments: the first of the two Nachtmusik movements was driven too hard and never really came together, rhythmically, its delicate evocations of nature (replete with jangling cowbells) robbed of their magic. In the second Nachtmusik, Rattle again tried to push the music ahead but eventually let it breathe more naturally. When he did, boy did it sing, led by the sumptuous languor of concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley’s lush solos.

There was better conceptual togetherness in the middle-movement Scherzo, which Rattle and the Berliners approached as more of an earthier essay than a menacing one. But that was fine: this was energetic and spunky Mahler, and, from my seat, impossible not to get swept up in – especially if you could see principal violist Máté Szücs all but bouncing out of his seat for his solos.

It was in the outer movements, though, where Rattle’s own interpretation was most consistently persuasive. The huge, sprawling first unfolded with organic logic, all of its sudden, dramatic shifts realized with breathtaking precision. Throughout, Rattle followed and drew out the melodic line wherever it went. And, because of the excellence of the Berliners’ overall ensemble, you could hear everything he called for plus so many of the details in Mahler’s visionary scoring, from the rattle of col legno strings to the delicate harp writing before the movement’s final section (that’s almost always covered) to the stereophonic effects written into the piece (and ably realized by seating the violins across the podium from one another).

The finale tends to be a bit of a structural jumble regardless of who’s on the podium. So it was on Friday, though it was impressive how Rattle shaped each of the chorale ritornellos as they appeared, usually easing into them instead of attacking them head-on. This approach resulted in a particularly effective separation from the burly, rustic sections that surround them and gave the movement a truly Wagnerian character: I’ve not previously heard it sounding so closely related to Die Meistersinger as in this performance. And, again, he brought out copious subtleties in Mahler’s scoring (including an especially vigorous double bass line towards the movement’s beginning).

What to make of the Symphony’s last five or so minutes is an open question. Rattle’s interpretation didn’t answer so much as it embraced in a bear hug the ambiguities present in the two contrasting types of music. Sonically, it was thrilling. Expressively, the last bars marked the triumph of blazing light over the threat of darkness. On a night when such an idea needed to be reinforced, it made for a rousing conclusion to an exceptional evening.

Friday’s concert began with Pierre Boulez’s Éclat, an eight-minute-long study of sonority for fifteen solo instruments (some of which, like guitar and mandolin, are also heard in Mahler’s Seventh). Programmatically, placing the Boulez first made lots of sense: his writing is one logical end of Mahler’s iridescent handling of the orchestra some sixty years on.

And hearing less-than-ten-minute installments of Boulez can be a perfectly sufficient dose. Even so, like more than a few his scores, Éclat is a bit too rigorous for its own good. Its opening section and the last two or so stand out by way of, first, establishing the overall sound world and harmonic environment, and, in the latter, providing a welcome contrast and dramatic finish. Would that there were more moments of free, illogical invention over Éclat’s middle three or four minutes, though.

Still, Friday’s performance was as convincing and engaged as you’re likely to hear it and the sold-out crowd at Symphony Hall was none too shy about rewarding the Berliners’ playing with warm applause.

This week’s concert marked the final time Rattle will appear in Boston with the BPO as its chief conductor. He becomes music director of the London Symphony (LSO) next fall and steps down from his German post in 2018. Let’s hope it’s less than seven years before he brings the LSO to Boston – and equally soon before these extraordinary Berliners come back to town with their new director, Kirill Petrenko.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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