Simon Rattle conducts Mahler’s Third Symphony

05 Feb 2011

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Nathalie Stutzmann

  • Johannes Brahms
    “Es tönt ein voller Harfenklang”, op. 17 no. 1 (4 min.)

    Women of the Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey Chorus Master

  • Hugo Wolf
    Elfenlied (6 min.)

    Anke Herrmann Soprano, Women of the Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey Chorus Master

  • Gustav Mahler
    Symphony No. 3 in D minor (109 min.)

    Nathalie Stutzmann Contralto, Knaben des Staats- und Domchors Berlin, Women of the Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey Chorus Master

  • free

    Simon Halsey on Mahler’s Third Symphony (15 min.)

Mahler’s Third Symphony is a gigantic work in every respect. Firstly, in terms of time: the opening movement alone is longer than the whole of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It is however in this work in particular that Mahler creates a cosmos of the most diverse expressive worlds. This recording documents the first time the Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle performed this work together.

“To me, a symphony means constructing a world with all the technical means at one’s disposal.” – no other work illustrates this quote by Mahler more impressively than his Third Symphony. Raw power and lyrical simplicity, scenes of nature and an orchestral final chorus of ethereal beauty all add up to a multifarious yet coherent whole. The second movement is of particular historical significance to the Berliner Philharmoniker, as the orchestra gave its first public performance in November 1896 under the direction of Arthur Nikisch, a good five years before the premiere of the complete work.

As a prelude to the Third Symphony, the programme includes vocal works by two composers who, along with Mahler, had a decisive influence on the Viennese music scene at the end of the 19th century. Firstly Johannes Brahms, who as one of the last Romantics was met partly with admiration, partly with scorn. In sharp contrast, there is Hugo Wolf and his need to define the future of music. Mahler was one of the few who had respect for both factions, being both rooted in the great symphonic tradition and constantly searching for new forms of expression.

Earthly and Heavenly Pleasures

Vocal and symphonic works by Wolf, Brahms and Mahler

If the three composers represented in this programme were to be brought back to life together at the Philharmonie, their encounter would begin with a heated battle of words. Hugo Wolf would display the sharpest tongue. Addressing Brahms, he might well unleash the following stream of vituperation against his music: “Crashing bore”... “hollow and contorted symphonies”... “cringe-making monotony”... “stunted rhythms and arid harmonies”... “a musical language of the utmost impotence”. Then he would turn to Mahler and reproach him bitterly for retracting his consent to bring out Wolf’s Corregidor at the Vienna Court Opera. Mahler would not reply but wait patiently until this former friend of his youth was carted off to the madhouse. In the meantime, Brahms would look over to Mahler and tell him once again that he regarded the Scherzo from his “Resurrection” Symphony as a “stroke of genius”, even if, speaking personally, the novelty served up there isn’t his cup of tea. And so he will continue to call Mahler the “king of the subversives”, though adding that he lacks the requisite sensitivity and understanding to be able to judge Mahler and Wolf.

Fortunately, time heals (almost) all wounds, and so the composers finally leave the podium and take their places in the auditorium – as far from each other as possible. And Titania the “Fairy Queen” may now summon her train to sing her to sleep: “Come now, a roundel and a fairy song; / Then, for the third part of a minute, hence!” At last Hugo Wolf has everyone’s full attention. In May 1889 Wolf believed he had found the subject for a comic opera in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; by October 1891, the Elfenlied (“You spotted snakes with double tongue”) and Lied des transferierten Zettel (Bottom’s “The ousel-cock so black of hue”) were finished in full score. They would remain the only pieces he produced for the planned opera – one of his many such unrealized projects.

Wolf was especially proud, as he told his friend, the Tübingen music director Emil Kauffmann in a letter, that with his setting he had made Mendelssohn’s “superfluous...his Elfenlied is rubbish, insipid, superficial, workaday. Mere notes on a page, but with nothing to say. A point of view that’s been superseded – fortunately”. Again the unbridled self-assurance, but behind it the expressive aesthetic Wolf has adopted from Liszt: the fusion of poetry and music. What Wolf gives the orchestra to play in the Elfenlied does correspond to the atmosphere generated by the words and their theatrical context: a true-to-life motivic profile for the tongue-flicking snakes, buzzing beetles and weaving spiders. Wolf doesn’t follow Shakespeare in distributing the text between soloists and chorus. Instead he intertwines them. And the closing lines – “Hence, away! now all is well: / One aloof stand sentinel.” – he leaves entirely to the orchestral postlude.

The energy centre of this evening’s concert is unquestionably to be found in the music of Gustav Mahler, but the programme’s sidelong glance at Johannes Brahms as a sort of second “choral prelude” can be heard as a transition to the main theme. “Es tönt ein voller Harfenklang”, this first piece from the four Gesänge Op. 17 (the second of which is also based on Shakespeare), would actually have even pleased Hugo Wolf, creating as it does a musical shape out of the textual source (the addition of a solo horn, incidentally, safeguards the little piece from any charge of triteness). The two stanzas by Friedrich Ruperti, a theologian who dabbled in poetry, are admittedly no literary jewel, but in Brahms’s setting the text nonetheless acquires a cosy Romantic atmosphere.

His Symphony No. 3 had to wait six years after Gustav Mahler completed it to receive a first performance, in Krefeld in 1902. Meanwhile, a number of the movements were given singly: the second movement – the Blumenstück or “Flower Piece” – was conducted by Arthur Nikisch (in Berlin with the Philharmonic) and Felix Weingartner (in Hamburg) in 1896, and in Berlin a year later Weingartner added the third and sixth movements. Mahler himself, after conducting the Krefeld premiere, performed the work no fewer than 14 more times, the last being in Berlin in January 1907. The greatest obstacle to its performance lay in the work’s monumentality – its length and vast forces were utterly unprecedented.

The Second Symphony assumed its final form only after years of work, with many interruptions, but then Mahler immediately undertook the Third and completed it with relative ease. For the most part, that is: the exception was the first movement, a “child of sorrow”, which was in fact the last to see the light of day. As he related while at work on it, Mahler was genuinely horror-stricken to see where it was leading him, and that “he had been chosen for the fearsome task of creating a work of this size”. On another occasion, he even referred to it as a “monstrosity”.

In this symphony Mahler attempts nothing less than tracing the act of creation from the elemental existence of natural forces to the human heart, thrust into the world. The movement subtitles that Mahler disclosed to friends during the symphony’s planning stages, though withdrawn before publication, are a useful guide to understanding the work, as is its original title, A Summer Morning’s Dream, under which the six parts are subsumed: 1. Pan awakes – Summer marches in – 2. What the meadow flowers tell me – 3. What the creatures of the forest tell me – 4. What mankind tells me – 5. What the angels tell me – 6. What love tells me.

The first movement, as so often with Mahler, is dominated by march rhythms. Wild trumpets and trombones irrupt from the primordial void, sweeping everything along with them. This opening movement alone, with its description of natural forces, lasts over half an hour. It is followed by the movement originally called Blumenstück, an idyllic minuet of natural charm. The third-movement scherzo is based on the early Wunderhorn song Ablösung im Sommer, which Mahler composed before 1892. The second Trio section directly contrasts a nostalgic posthorn melody with the lively freshness of the rest of the movement. Human destiny and grief is the subject of the meditative fourth movement, which quotes from Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra: “O Man, take heed!” The vocal line unfolds in free recitation over floating harmonies, so freely that the words seem on the verge of fragmenting. The contralto soloist continues in the following Wunderhorn song Es sungen drei Engel, the text of which alludes to the Second Letter of Peter. The angels’ song is prepared for by a boys’ choir accompanied by four tuned bells. As though everything needing to be said has been said, the singers remain silent during the final movement. The “last word” in this symphony goes to the orchestra – a melody that sounds without cessation, arising gently and growing to a thunderous conclusion. “A chorale in which everything with breath joins in,” wrote Paul Bekker in his Mahler biography. “A hymn of praise to the power of love.”

Helge Jung

Translation: Richard Evidon

Anke Herrmann was born in Kiev to German-Ukrainian parents. After studying singing at the Academy of Music Hanns Eisler Berlin, she continued her training with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Ruth Berghaus, Brigitte Eisenfeld and Dario Pangrazi. While still a student, she was invited to participate in productions at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin, where she was a resident guest for several years, working under the direction of conductors such as Daniel Barenboim, René Jacobs, Peter Schreier and Sebastian Weigle in works by Cavalli, Telemann, Haydn, Cimarosa, Mozart and Stravinsky. With an opera and concert repertoire of 17th and 18th century music, Anke Herrmann has performed in many of the world’s most famous opera houses (including the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris; the Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels; the Hamburg State opera, and the Czech National Theatre in Prague), concert halls (for example the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam) and in festivals such as the Innsbruck Festival of Early Music, the Handel Festival in Halle, the International Arts Festival Melbourne, the Music Fest Vancouver and Mostly Mozart New York. For many years now, the soprano has had an artistic partnership with the Academia Montis Regalis from Mondovì in Piedmont, with whom she makes regular appearances and recordings. With these concerts, Anke Herrmann will be making her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

The Staats- und Domchor Berlin is one of the most famous boys’ choirs in Germany, with a history that goes back to the 16th century. As the then-called “Königlicher Domchor”, their first golden age was in the 19th century under the direction of conductors such as Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Otto Nicolai and Heinrich August Neidhardt. In 1923 the ensemble was renamed the “Staats- und Domchor Berlin” and became affiliated with the Hochschule für Musik. Today, the choir provides music for services at the Cathedral of Berlin and also for state occasions. In addition, it participates in performances in opera houses and concert venues in Berlin, and holds its own concerts with a repertoire which includes the great works of the Western choral tradition from the Middle Ages to modern times. Since 2002, the choir has been led by Kai-Uwe Jirka, Professor of choral conducting at the Berlin University of the Arts. In addition to many other awards, the Staats- und Domchor Berlin won the European Youth Choir Culture Prize in 2002. Tours have taken the choir to other European countries, Asia, the USA and Israel. The Staats- und Domchor’s most recent appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker was in April 2010 in performances of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

The Rundfunkchor Berlin, founded in 1925, produced great musical moments of the 1920s and 30s under the direction of conductors such as George Szell, Hermann Scherchen, Otto Klemperer and Erich Kleiber. After the Second World War, the choir and its principal conductor Helmut Koch made the oratorios of Handel internationally known in their original versions. Dietrich Knothe (1982 – 1993) formed the choir into a precision instrument for the most difficult of works; Robin Gritton (1994 – 2001) both enriched and refined the ensemble’s palette of colours. Since 2001, the Rundfunkchor Berlin has been led by Simon Halsey, who places particular emphasis on stylistic and linguistic perfection, resulting in lively and exciting performances of works from all periods and in all styles. Their frequent recordings document this work: the recording with the Berliner Philharmoniker of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms conducted by Sir Simon Rattle won a Grammy in 2009 for best choral recording. Simon Halsey has also initiated many of the choir’s education and outreach projects, the interdisciplinary event series Broadening the Scope of Choral Music as well as the annual Sing-along Concert. At the beginning of October 2010, for the first time, the Rundfunkchor Berlin hosted an international masterclass for young professional choir conductors. The choir has been a partner of leading orchestras and conductors all over the world, including long-standing partnerships with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester and the Berliner Philharmoniker. The Rundfunkchor Berlin’s last concert with the orchestra was in October 2010 in a series of three concerts of works by Arnold Schönberg and Gustav Mahler, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

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