Sir Simon Rattle conducts Mahler and Beethoven

27 Aug 2010
Opening of the 2010/2011 season

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

  • Ludwig van Beethoven
    Symphony No. 4 in B flat major, op. 60 (37 min.)

  • Gustav Mahler
    Symphony No. 1 in D major (62 min.)

  • free

    Sir Simon Rattle introduces Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 (8 min.)

  • free

    Sir Simon Rattle introduces Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 (10 min.)

Not only does this concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle open the new season, it also marks the start of an ambitious artistic project: the performance of all of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies by the end of 2011. With this series, the orchestra and its conductor paid tribute to two Mahler anniversaries: 7 July 2010 was the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth and 18 May 2011 was the centenary of his death.

Mahler’s symphonic œuvre is of particular significance for the relationship between Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker. Not only was a Mahler symphony – the Sixth – performed at Rattle’s Berlin debut in November 1987 but also at his inaugural concert as the orchestra’s chief conductor in September 2002, when the Fifth was played. The recording of the latter remains to this day a best-seller in the international CD catalogue and, in Gramophone magazine’s opinion, “it can safely be ranked among the half-dozen or so finest performances on record.”

One of the aims of this performance of Mahler’s complete symphonies is to circumscribe the composer’s place in the history of music. To this end, his symphonies were mirrored against the works of other eminent composers ranging from Purcell to Schoenberg. In this recording we hear Mahler’s First Symphony juxtaposed with Beethoven’s Fourth, giving us the opportunity to appreciate how these two composers, employing the most modern compositional means available to them in their respective periods, used the genre of the symphony to formulate music that lent voice to expression in an unparalleled way.

“Waiting to learn whether or not fate will hear us”

Beethoven’s Fourth and Mahler’s First Symphonies

Every symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven is unique. Each has its own unmistakable character, its special personal and historical background. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in B flat major op. 60 is no exception. The only one of the nine about whose genesis we know virtually nothing, it is also the most modestly scored. Beethoven’s contemporaries found it humorous and easy to grasp – thus worthy of imitation. The Fourth as a Classical cache of cheerfulness – that was the prevailing hermeneutic characterisation of the work for decades. But there were also some diverging opinions, and the work seems quite early to have gained a reputation as being Beethoven’s most Romantic symphony.

The introduction opens the gates to a mysterious, twilit world. Woodwind and horns sound the note B flat pianissimo over five bars, but already in the second bar the strings add a G flat, a note without the slightest relation to B flat major. Further contrast comes from the alternation of legato and staccato. Both stylistic devices (the “wrong” G flat and the changing articulation) also distinguish the ensuing Allegro vivace. And only seldom are the main themes with their tendency to bucolic light-heartedness able to unfold without suddenly being swept up in a maelstrom of powerful activity and abruptly intruding fortissimo chords. The fundamental experience seems to be the dynamic process itself, not the savouring of melodic ideas.

This ambiguity emerges even more clearly in the second movement, which begins with a hesitant oscillating figure on the second violins. The songlike main theme is never able to maintain the upper hand for long: it is constantly bumping up against disruptive repeated notes and obstructions to the musical flow. The lively Scherzo marked by cross-rhythms that follows suggests a “German Dance” of the sort Beethoven would have encountered at any country inn. A serenade-like Trio section at first promises repose but soon rises to majestic heights. The movement is also formally novel in presenting the Trio twice and, consequently, the Scherzo section three times.

A similar impression is made by the concluding Allegro non troppo: in this work, for the first time, the “how” of the music is more important than the “what”. There is hardly anything here that can be identified as a principal theme in the Classical sense. Only gradually are short motifs peeled off the strings’ whirling semiquaver (16th-note) runs, interrupted by punching dissonant chords. This exceptionally virtuosic finale is unquestionably full of humour, but a wild, odd, at times frenetic humour.

In looking for the work’s background, we can probably rule out the importance of the Napoleonic Wars then raging. A debatable theory regarding the Fourth began circulating at the end of the 19th century, when various publications appeared on the subject of Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved”. The majority of scholars dated three unaddressed love-letters to the year 1806 and saw in them a model for the symphony’s uncertainty and emotional ambiguity. In the letters Beethoven describes his mental state as “now and then joyful, then sad, waiting to learn whether or not fate will hear us”.

Scholars have since disproved the assumption that these famous letters were written in 1806, and yet the love hypothesis remains convincing. Many sources report that Beethoven was “never out of love and usually was much affected by the love he was in at the time”. Thus the composer must typically have found himself in that ambivalent state of mind of which the letters speak. Clearly, Beethoven’s Fourth cannot be reduced to a symphonic love story, but just as clearly we cannot simply ignore the relevance of his largely unrequited amours. Resolving these issues, however, is as problematic as fully fathoming the work’s character, shifting between passionate, lyrical and demonic.

About Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D major we know almost everything. He worked on it from 1884, completing the work in March 1888 in Leipzig. The source of its inspiration is also a matter of record: her name was Johanna Richter; she had blue eyes, fair hair and a beautiful coloratura soprano voice. Mahler met the young singer in 1881 when he was the conductor in Laibach (then Austrian, now Ljubljana, Slovenia), and they met again in 1884 in Kassel where both were engaged at the Royal Prussian Court Theatre. It was a case of unrequited love. Mahler later elucidated: “I should like to stress that the symphony goes far beyond the love story on which it is based. ... The external event was only the occasion for the work and not its content.” Nevertheless, Bruno Walter was probably not wide of the mark when he called the D major symphony “Mahler’s Werther”, although the composer himself had decided in favour of a different literary programme: Jean Paul’s satirical coming-of-age novel Titan. The individual movements were given poetic titles after the fact, but Mahler dropped them when the work was performed by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1896. His recourse to the Romantic poet represented only a pedagogical stopgap for his audiences.

In the introduction to his first symphonic work, Mahler adopts Beethoven’s notion of sustained notes, achieving an ethereal sound by means of string harmonics. Right at the outset, he calls for “shimmering and flickering”, an atmospheric representation of the natural world that also is expressed in the movement’s original title “Spring goes on and on”. One of the most important building blocks of the opening movement is the interval of a 4th: introduced by the woodwind in bar 3, it becomes the germ cell of the ensuing main theme based on Mahler’s Wayfarer song “Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld”. There is no second theme as such: this movement bears little relation to traditional sonata form. It is a grand poetic depiction of nature, and in the introduction we hear cuckoo calls, distant marchlike trumpet fanfares and dreamlike hunting horns. Even the sense of stillness, of nature’s silence, is composed into the work, eventually to be drowned out by a sweeping ff and fff outburst from the whole orchestra. Here the music – as in early Beethoven – crosses the boundary between art and life: with a shock it makes tangible to listeners the world whose beauty and terror have long since ceased to register in their daily lives.

The scherzo seeks out a more refreshing realm. No wonder the conductor Willem Mengelberg chose the phrase “peasant dance” in referring to it. But Mahler also aims for an alienation effect with the use of muted horns and trumpets. The Trio exudes the nostalgic atmosphere of Viennese waltzes, with just a brief intrusion of the noisier peasant world. One of Mahler’s most remarkable creations is the slow movement. Its orchestration is pure caricature – the bass solo alone is completely foreign to serious symphonic composition. Over an oscillating 4th on timpani, Mahler plays the canon Bruder Martin (Frère Jacques) to depict musically an engraving called “The Huntsman’s Funeral” – which explains the sardonic tone of this funeral march of forest animals. It is interrupted by the strange appearance of a “band of Bohemian musicians” and a reminiscence of Mahler’s Wayfarer song “Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz”. In cinematic hard cuts, Mahler contrasts the bitter absurdity of the world with a longing for the unattainable.

The finale attempts to bridge this gap. Beginning with an F minor outburst, it juxtaposes destructive elements with intimate, lyrical scenes and reminiscences from the first movement. The signal-like main theme is deployed in marchlike attacks before unleashing a “victory chorale”, which however rings more hollow than triumphant. Mahler’s first biographer Richard Specht described the symphony as the confession of a youthful idealist who is finally broken by the “treachery of eternal baseness”. Pessimistic interpretations of this optimistic work are still best today.

Volker Tarnow

Translation: Richard Evidon

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