Simon Rattle conducts Mahler’s Second Symphony

31 Jan 2015

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Rundfunkchor Berlin, Magdalena Kožená, Kate Royal

  • Helmut Lachenmann
    Tableau for orchestra (15 min.)

  • Gustav Mahler
    Symphony No. 2 in C minor “Resurrection” (93 min.)

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

“Less ready-made ceremony than a ‘blocking rehearsal’ of magic props, whereby order as a cold arrangement still leaves all options open, a glimpse behind the scenes, that is, a release into the materiality of the sound objects themselves. This means an observing way of listening, and where the eloquence of the elements of expression obtained recognises their speechlessness: first step, time and again, when searching for forms of communication without any illusions.” This is how Helmut Lachenmann characterises his orchestral composition Tableau, premiered in 1989. And yet the composer, born in 1935, seems at the same moment also to reflect aesthetic principles of Gustav Mahler’s music. For don’t Mahler’s symphonies also live essentially from a “breaking of the familiar”, the violation of “aesthetic taboos” and the attempt to “cut against the grain” using compositional methods?

2011 was the first time that Sir Simon Rattle spotlighted inner kinship of the two composers in a concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker. He continues this discourse in interpretation by performing in one concert Lachenmann’s Tableau for orchestra and Mahler’s Second Symphony, in connection with which the composer once wrote: “You are clubbed to the ground and then lifted to the highest heights on angels’ wings.” Without doubt a situation that Lachenmann too, as one of the most controversial composers of his generation, well knows.

“Music As Existential Experience”

Orchestral Works by Helmut Lachenmann and Gustav Mahler

“You will see: I will not live to see the victory of my cause!” Gustav Mahler declared in a conversation with Natalie Bauer-Lechner shortly after the premiere of his Second Symphony. “Everything I write is too strange and new for the listeners, who cannot find a bridge to me.”

What Mahler said about his own works in 1896 became a common experience in modern composition during the 20th century. For example, in 1985 Helmut Lachenmann began an essay with the programmatic title “Hören ist wehrlos – ohne Hören” (Hearing Is Defenceless – Without Hearing) with a description of the “well-known gap” that had already troubled Mahler 90 years earlier. “It is the gap between the music enthusiast – who loves and listens to music because of the expressive eloquence manifest in traditional works, because of the experience of beauty rooted in tonal music, in which the subject is reflected, emphatically intensified – and the composer, who responds to tradition by carrying it forward, rather than conserving such experiences.”

New Listening and Performance Experiences – Lachenmann’s Tableaufor Orchestra

Helmut Lachenmann’s search for liberated perception and a new way of listening initially led to a critical analysis of the existing aesthetic apparatus. The expressive palette of his orchestral work Tableau, composed in 1988/89, includes toneless blown, stroked, whisked and struck sounds as well as traditional materials such as major and minor chords and various scales. These are arranged on the acoustical canvas in such a way that they cannot produce their usual effect, however. A striking example of this is found at the end of the transition to the noise-like middle section. After the various instrumental groups gradually dissolve into toneless sounds, the composer inserts a 22-part chord in the strings before a general pause. Although the soft, ethereal flautando sound is clearly recognizable as an E minor chord, it sounds strange and novel in this context. The “old magic has become directionless,” Lachenmann says, and for precisely that reason can produce a magical effect.

“Continually Tilting at Windmills” – the Origins and Early Reception of Mahler’s Second Symphony

Exactly 100 years before Helmut Lachenmann wrote his Tableau for orchestra, Gustav Mahler began composing the orchestral work which was to become his Second Symphony. In January 1888 the 27-year-old conductor of the Municipal Theatre in Leipzig started drafting an expansive symphonic movement. The fragment of the dramatic epic Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve, a feast commemorating the dead) by the Polish national poet Adam Mickiewicz served as his inspiration for the work. Mahler made good progress with the composition and by late summer he had not only completed the manuscript of the Todtenfeier(Funeral Rites) movement but had also made preliminary sketches for an Andante, later the second movement of the symphony. After that, however, work on the ambitious project came to a standstill for nearly five years. His post as director of the Royal Hungarian Opera in Budapest, which Mahler assumed in autumn of 1888 and held for two and a half years, demanded nearly all of the up-and-coming conductor’s creative energy. In addition, his parents and older sister died the following year – a series of events which not only upset him emotionally but also made him responsible for the care of his four younger siblings.

These changes in his personal life are probably the reason why Mahler temporarily shelved his symphonic plans and instead tried to have the Todtenfeiermovement performed as an independent tone poem. In the hope of enlisting one of the outstanding interpreters of the older generation as an advocate, he introduced the work to Hans von Bülow in autumn of 1891. The reaction of the then chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker was devastating, however: “When I played my Todtenfeierfor him, he fell into a state of nervous excitement, behaved like a madman and exclaimed that, compared to my work, Tristan sounded like a Haydn symphony.”

Despite this and other negative reactions, the composer did not become discouraged, however. In June of 1893, in the seclusion of a summer holiday inn at Steinbach on Lake Atter in Austria, he resumed work on the project of a symphony consisting of several movements, which he had set aside in 1888. Within a few weeks he completed the Andante he had made sketches for five years earlier. In addition, he composed four songs to texts from the hybrid folk song collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn(The Youth’s Magic Horn), including Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt(St Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fishes) and Urlicht(Primeval Light). Mahler developed the scherzo of the Second Symphony from the first of these songs during that summer and later decided to make the Urlicht the fourth movement of the work.

After this veritable burst of creativity the composition process came to a standstill again before the end of the summer, this time primarily for reasons of content. First of all, Mahler could not find a satisfactory answer to the question of how to convincingly end the symphony. Ironically, the funeral service for Hans von Bülow at St Michael’s Church in Hamburg at the end of March 1894 provided a solution to the problem of the finale. The composer later wrote: “The mood I was in as I sat there thinking of the deceased was very much in the spirit of the work I had on my mind at that time. Then, from the organ loft, the choir sang Klopstock’s chorale Auferstehen! (Resurrection). This hit me like a flash of lightning, and everything appeared clearly and distinctly before me!” Mahler composed the monumental choral finale by the end of June 1894 and finally completed the fair copy of the Second Symphony shortly before Christmas, after working on it for more than six years.

When Mahler conducted the premiere of the first three movements of his Second Symphony during a subscription concert by the Berliner Philharmoniker on 4 March 1895, the audience reaction was mixed and the reviews – with only a few exceptions – scathing. Nevertheless, Mahler made a second attempt before the end of the year. With the support of two wealthy patrons from Hamburg, he booked the Berliner Philharmoniker and the chorus of the Singakademie as a private presenter for the considerable sum of 5,000 marks (approximately 50,000 euros today). After four days of intense rehearsal, the complete work was heard for the first time at the old Philharmonie on Bernburger Strasse on 13 December 1895, with 120 orchestra musicians and a large chorus. This time the Second Symphony was well received by both the performers and the audience, which was small, however. Most of the critics stood by their initial negative opinions. They found fault with the supposed “formlessness” of the music and, in addition, questioned the composer’s decision not to reveal the programmatic basis of the symphony to the listeners. In a much-quoted letter to the composer and music critic Max Marschalk several days later, Mahler explained the reasoning behind his action: “In conceiving the work I was never concerned with detailed description of an event, but at most with that of a feeling. The conceptual basis of the work is clearly expressed in the words of the final chorus, and the sudden alto solo casts light on the first movements. The fact that in various individual passages I often retrospectively see a real event as if it were taking its course dramatically before my eyes can easily be gathered from the nature of the music. The parallelism between life and music may go deeper and further than one is at present capable of realizing. However, I am far from requiring everyone to follow me in this. I gladly leave the interpretation of details to each listener’s imagination.”

Tobias Bleek

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

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, Aix-en-Provence and New York, singing works by Monteverdi, Handel, Mozart, Bizet, Strauss, 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, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Le concert d’Astrée and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, amongst others. She has collaborated with such conductors as Gustavo Dudamel, Emmanuelle Haïm, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Sir Simon Rattle, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Franz Welser-Möst 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 April 2013, in a concert performance of Mozart’s DieZauberflöte conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

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, Malcolm Martineau 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 and took part in Bach’s St Matthew Passion in April 2010 and October 2013 as well as 2014 in the St John Passion, equally staged by Peter Sellars. She most recently appeared with the orchestra in April 2014 in the concert performance of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

The Rundfunkchor Berlinis a sought-after 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. In around 50 concerts per year the chorus displays an exceptional breadth of repertoire and stylistic versatility. With it’s experimental series, “Broadening the Scope of Choral Music”, in collaboration with artists from diverse disciplines, the Rundfunkchor Berlin is breaking down the classical concert format and adopting new modes of choral music for a new audience: In 2012 an interactive scenic version of Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem staged by Jochen Sandig / Sasha Waltz & Guests attracted great attention. Founded in 1925 and shaped by conductors including Helmut Koch, Dietrich Knothe and Robin Gritton, the Rundfunkchor Berlin has been directed since 2001 by Simon Halsey. Their work together is documented by many recordings and awards, including three Grammy Awards. Simon Halsey, who was awarded the “Bundesverdienstkreuz” (Cross of the Order of Merit) in January 2011, has also initiated many of the choir’s education and outreach projects, such as the annual Sing-along Concert and the “Liederbörse” (Song Exchange) for children and young people. The Rundfunkchor last appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker earlier this month in Brahms’s German Requiem, conducted by Christian Thielemann.

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