Sir Simon Rattle conducts Mahler’s Symphony No. 2

30 Oct 2010

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Rundfunkchor Berlin, Kate Royal, Magdalena Kožená

  • Arnold Schoenberg
    A Survivor from Warsaw, op. 46 (9 min.)

    Hanns Zischler Speaker, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey Chorus Master

  • Gustav Mahler
    Symphony No. 2 in C minor “Resurrection” (97 min.)

    Kate Royal Soprano, Magdalena Kožená Mezzo-Soprano, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey Chorus Master

  • free

    Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony: an introduction by Simon Halsey (13 min.)

Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony has a particular significance in the history of the Berliner Philharmoniker: Mahler himself gave the first performance of this work with this orchestra in 1895. Afterwards, he noted contentedly, “Everything was exceedingly successful. The performers were so enthralled and gripped that they found the right expression for everything themselves.”

The symphony has also played a special role in the career of Sir Simon Rattle. When Rattle’s recording of the work with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra first appeared in 1987, it was clear that a remarkable talent had arrived on the scene. The Gramophone magazine wrote at the time: “But where Simon Rattle’s interpretation is concerned, we must go into the realm of such giant Mahlerians as Walter and Klemperer, dissimilar as they were. For we are dealing here with conducting akin to genius, with insights and instincts that cannot be measured with any old yardstick.”

The symphony is a work full of power and life. Although it deals thematically with death and resurrection, it does so rather in an abstract, sublimated way. In contrast to this is the second work of the evening, Arnold Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw from 1947. Here, death is given a concrete, almost unbearable form when a narrator gives a stark eyewitness account of the massacre in the Warsaw ghetto.

Living, beyond life itself

Professions of faith in works by Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg

In 1933, Arnold Schoenberg had to give up his professorship at the Berlin Academy of Arts, he emigrated to the USA and, while on route, returned formally to the Jewish faith while in Paris. He had converted to Protestantism in 1898, but had begun again looking into Judaism even before the First World War, and had started planning works with decidedly Old Testament subjects. Schoenberg even decided at that point to “give up my composing, writing and music theory activities etc. and from now on, do only one thing: to work for the salvation of Judaism.” Someone had to be the “representative for the whole of Judaism. Perhaps I will be that man. I put myself forward.” But Schoenberg’s plans came to nothing, partly as a result of the not unjustified criticism by Thomas Mann: In a letter from January 1939, he charges the politicised composer with having “an often rather violent affectation”, which “doubtlessly even verges on fascism.”

“The old prayer they had neglected for so many years – the forgotten creed!”:

A Survivor from Warsaw by Arnold Schoenberg

Schoenberg achieved more through his music: The more apocalyptic the reports that came through to his Californian exile from Europe, the faster new works flowed from his pen. A Survivor from Warsaw op. 46 was written in six weeks in 1947. Although the around seven minute long work with its unusual instrumentation does not fit easily into standard concert programmes, it became a beacon in which Luigi Nono recognised “the aesthetic, musical manifesto of our epoch.”

Against a background of piercing trumpet calls and onomatopeotic “col legno battuto” accompaniment from the strings, Schoenberg’s own text, a moving eyewitness account, tells of the Warsaw ghetto – of the splitting up of Jewish families, the transportation to the gas chambers, the counting of the victims under the command of a sergeant who, also in Schoenberg’s original English version, speaks in strong, regionally accented German. When the narrator falls silent, the twelve-tone composed male chorus declaims with considered calm the Hebrew creed “Shem’a Yisroel”, contrasting with the oppressive orchestral sounds; a heightened version of his own return to Judaism, as one of Schoenberg’s letters states, “All of these people who have possibly forgotten that they are Jews for many years, suddenly come face to face with death, and remember who they are.”

“I will not let Thee go, except Thou bless me”: Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor Resurrection

It is likely that few deaths affected Schoenberg as much as that of Gustav Mahler. Due in particular to his uncompromising work ethos, the former director of the Vienna Hofoper was the idol of the young Viennese composer. Following Mahler’s funeral, Schoenberg captured his first impressions – as he so often did in the years around 1910 – in paint: The Begräbnis von Gustav Mahler shows a bright hill and an empty grave bordered by shadowy figures against a dark, stormy sky. The idea of Golgotha suggests itself. Later, Schoenberg actually did deal with Golgotha in another picture, painting the Christus-Vision which seems like a companion piece: the luminous body, emerging from its grave, appears to form the centre which is missing from the Begräbnis von Gustav Mahler. Is this the Urlicht, the primordial or eternal light which Mahler bears witness to in his perhaps most characteristic work? This short fourth movement of the Second Symphony is remarkable not only because the meteorite of the human voice completes its re-entry into the orbit of symphonic music, but also because the monumental title Urlicht does not conceal any global revelation. Instead, we hear the unadorned voice of the devout soul, in a text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, in its persistent search for God.

In fact, Mahler was aiming at an integrated whole with the Second Symphony. This work, which Mahler worked on for a period of six years, was always renowned for its extraordinary nature. Initially, the first movement was completed as a tone poem in its own right; Mahler called it Todtenfeier, taken from an epic poem by the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz. Even in this form, the work was linked to the Berliner Philharmoniker: their principal conductor Hans von Bülow allowed Mahler to play Todtenfeier for him on the piano – after which, according to Mahler, “he went into a nervous shock, and declared Tristan to be like a Haydn symphony compared to my piece, gesticulating like a madman.” Perhaps Bülow realised that this movement was only the beginning of a symphonic development, something which the composer himself had not yet grasped. Remarkably, Mahler found the solution during the funeral service for Bülow at the Michaeliskirche in Hamburg in 1894: “The choir began singing the Klopstock chorale ‘Aufersteh’n!’ – It all came to me like a bolt of lightning, and everything became plain and clear in my mind!”

So, Mahler wrote a choral finale based on Klopstock’s spiritual text (with his own additions). After a wide-ranging introduction with references to the first movement, horn and trumpet calls, “from a great distance” enter the finale; the flutes, metrically free, imitate birdsong. Ultimately the choir, unaccompanied and triple piano, whisper about the certainty of the resurrection – a magical moment (G-flat major to F minor), whose effect not even the skeptical Theodor W. Adorno could ignore.

Whether a blessing or a curse, this symphony belongs to the realm of programme music and is linked to the preceding First Symphony. It was actually, as Mahler wrote, “the hero of my D major symphony who I bring here to the grave, and whose life I, from a different perspective, capture in a pure mirror.” Although Mahler soon distanced himself from such statements, he held fast to his original idea in the case of the Second Symphony: in the finale, the Last Judgement is conquered through the “glory of God” – a “divine feeling of love fills us with spiritual knowledge and existence”. The starting point is the death of a loved one (first movement), followed in the Andante by “a moment of happiness from the life of the dearly departed”. From the Scherzo (third movement), the vocal element is gradually introduced: Firstly, a lied is instrumentally paraphrased (Mahler’s Wunderhorn setting of Des heiligen Antonius’ Fischpredigt stands in this heterogeneous movement for “the melee of figures” and the loss of faith in God). The turning and pivotal point between this “song without words” and the choral finale is the alto solo in the fourth movement, an orchestral setting of the Wunderhorn song Urlicht. It ends in a transfiguring D-flat major, anticipating the final bars of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, both in harmony and gesture.

The fifth movement follows “without any break” and indeed, as it also states in the score, “with wild abandon”. According to a little known statement by Mahler which was passed on by Schoenberg’s student Egon Wellesz, he wanted here “to represent the wrestling of Jacob with God”: “I will not let Thee go, except Thou bless me.” On the threshold of the 20th century, Mahler could still celebrate God’s blessing with a grandiose final chorus. Fifty years later, Arnold Schoenberg has humanity feel its way towards a God they had almost forgotten.

Olaf Wilhelmer

Translation: Innes Wilson

Magdalena Kožená, was born in Brno (Czech Republic) and studied there at the local conservatory and also with Eva Blahová in Bratislava. A winner of many competitions, including the International Mozart Competition in Salzburg in 1995, her first engagements were at the Janáček Theatre of the National Theatre in Brno and at the Prague Spring International Music Festival. Since then, she has appeared in Paris at the Théâtre du Châtelet (in the female title role in Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice), at the Opéra Comique and at the Théâtre des Champs Élysées (Mélisande), at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (Varvara in Kátja Kabanová) and at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin in productions of Der Rosenkavalier and the Chabrier opera L’Étoile. Well known for her interpretation of Mozart roles (Cherubino, Idamante, Sesto, Zerlina), Magdalena Kožená has appeared at many major festivals such as Edinburgh, Salzburg, Aldeburgh and at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. She is also acclaimed world-wide as a concert and Lieder singer, accompanied by pianists such as Daniel Barenboim, Yefim Bronfman and Mitsuko Uchida as well as leading orchestras and conductors. In 2003, Magdalena Kožená was awarded the title “Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres” by the French government; Gramophone voted her “Artist of the Year” in 2004. Since September 2003 she has performed many times as a soloist with the Berliner Philharmoniker, most recently in Berlin in September 2010 in performances of Martinů’s Three fragments from the Opera Juliette, conducted by Tomáš Netopil. On 1 November she will perform works from the 17th century with the Private Musicke ensemble as part of our Original Sounds series in the Chamber Music Hall.

Kate Royal was born in London and studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the National Opera Studio. She won the Kathleen Ferrier Award in 2004 and the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Young Artist Award in 2007. She has performed on opera stages in London, Glyndebourne, Madrid, Paris and Aix-en-Provence, singing works by Monteverdi, Mozart, Bizet, Britten and Adès. Kate Royal has appeared as a concert soloist at the BBC Proms, the Baden-Baden and Edinburgh Festivals and with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC. She has collaborated with such conductors as Sir Charles Mackerras, Sir Simon Rattle, Vasily Petrenko and Helmuth Rilling and has appeared in recitals throughout Europe and North America. Kate Royal made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in mid-December 2007, singing Handel’s Messiah under the baton of William Christie. She appeared with the orchestra most recently in February 2009, in performances of Schumann’s Das Paradies und die Peri 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 is hosting 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 appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in September 2010 under the leadership of Pierre Boulez in performances of Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol.

Hanns Zischler, born in Nürnberg, studied ethnology, philosophy, music and comparative literature in Munich and Berlin. After his roles in Wim Wenders’s films Same Player Shoots Again (1968/1969) and Summer in the City (1969/1971) he appeared in many productions of New German Cinema and worked with such directors as Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and Margarethe von Trotta. He also acted in several German television series, including Tatort Scene of the Crime, Derrick and Die Männer vom K 3 The Men From K 3. He was a dramaturge at Berlin’s Schaubühne from 1973 to 1975, later directing his own productions in Basel and Karlsruhe. In addition to his acting career, Hanns Zischler is a well-known translator, editor and author of film criticism, radio plays and literary essays. In 1996 he published his book Kafka geht ins Kino, which was named best film book of the year in France in 1997 and was subsequently published in English as Kafka Goes to the Movies. In 2009 he received the Heinrich Mann Prize from the Academy of the Arts in Berlin for his work as an essayist. His books Aus der Nachwelt From the Afterworld and Der Schmetterlingskoffer The Butterfly Case were published in 2010. Since the 1990s Hanns Zischler has also worked as a narrator and author with various musicians and ensembles, among them Barbara Feldman, the ensemble recherche and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra. He appears with the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time at these concerts.

Magdalena Kožená appears by kind permission of Deutsche Grammophon.


Mahler 2 'Resurrection' CD Cover

Watch now

Try out the Digital Concert Hall!

Try out the Digital Concert Hall!

In our free playlist, Kirill Petrenko conducts works including Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Peter Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. The best seat in the house is reserved just for you!

View our free playlist