"The increasing tension, working up to the final climax, is so tremendous that I don’t know myself, now that it is over, how I ever came to write it." Mahler
Simon Rattle and the mighty Berlin Philharmonic pulled out all the stops last night to wrap up their weekend visit to New York, filling the Carnegie Hall stage not only with 100 or so instrumentalists, but also the 250-strong Westminster Symphonic Choir, soprano Camilla Trilling and mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink. As on Thursday and Friday nights, the hall was completely filled, everyone - including those who had been there on the previous two nights - buzzing with anticipation.
The concert began with three songs by Hugo Wolf, the late 19th century Austrian composer best known for his bouts with manic depression and delusions of grandeur (he falsely believed he had been appointed to replace Mahler as director of the Vienna Court Opera.) "Spring Chorus" (1897) and "Elves' Song" (1891) were both lush and sweet, almost cheerfully tonal. "The Fire Rider" (1892) was more vibrant, combining Carmina Burana-like rawness with Wagnerian sweep.
After intermission, the players returned onstage for Mahler's monumental Symphony No. 2. This ninety minute work for chorus and orchestra - which the Berlin Phil premiered with Mahler conducting in 1895 - is one of music's great showpieces, filled with drama and ecstasy. The Berliners played with perfect precision and sublime beauty, with an astonishing breadth of dynamics. But, as the symphony dragged on, one suspected that Rattle, who knows Mahler's symphonies better than anyone, had something up his sleeve to breathe fresh life into this familiar masterpiece.
That surprise came in the climactic fifth movement, which began with an explosion of cymbals and brass that was ear-splitting in its volume. Then, out of nowhere, horns sounded in the balcony, backstage, and behind all of the doors around the hall's permieter. In all my years of attending concerts at Carnegie, never have I heard the hall sound so alive: I was literally surrounded by sound.
Then, the chorus began, slowly and and quietly, and suddenly I felt I was in a sacred space, surrounded by a congregation filled with fervor. By this point, Rattle was really going for it, his gestures aimed skyward, yielding an unbelieveable volume from the gathered masses. Clearly, Rattle feels this music deeper than almost anyone, and his ferocious energy is simply impossible to resist. (Click the link to hear for yourself: Final Section Mahler Symphony No. 2)
As unlikely as it might seem, this sometimes-difficult marriage between these disciplined German players and their exuberant British conductor produced not just the most astonishing performance of the Mahler 2nd I've ever witnessed, but a collaboration for the ages. As such, the BPO - which has been famously self-governing since its inception - have extended Rattle's contract through 2018, at which point Rattle will be 63. I wouldn't be surprised if they ask him to stay even longer.
Thank you for coming, Berlin. We'll see you again in 2014, if not before.
More pics on the photo page.