Simon Rattle conducts Mahler’s Second Symphony

18 Feb 2012

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Camilla Tilling, Bernarda Fink, Rundfunkchor Berlin

  • Hugo Wolf
    3 Choruses: Elfenlied · Der Feuerreiter · Frühlingschor (19 min.)

    Camilla Tilling Soprano, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey Chorus Master

  • Gustav Mahler
    Symphony No. 2 in C minor “Resurrection” (96 min.)

    Camilla Tilling Soprano, Bernarda Fink Contralto, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey Chorus Master

  • free

    Simon Halsey on Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony (12 min.)

The Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle have a special relationship with Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony. After all, it was with this orchestra that the composer presented his work to the music world in December 1895. The symphony also has a special place in the biography of Simon Rattle.

Rattle himself once said, “Mahler’s Second Symphony is a piece that I have been involved with all my musical life. In fact, it was the piece that made me take up conducting in the first place when I heard it in a live performance aged 12. Mahler aimed to put the entire world into a symphony. And this world goes from the death rites of some unnamed hero through a memory of what life was in both its beauty and its horror and final resurrection and redemption. It is on a vast canvas with many performers, and for me it is one of the most moving of all orchestral works.”

In addition to Richard Strauss, Hugo Wolf was the most significant composer with whom Mahler was personally well acquainted. At times they were even close friends. As a prelude to the Second Symphony, the Rundfunkchor Berlin sings three choral works by Wolf – real discoveries, in which Romantic colours are paired with innovative impact.

Not a Few “Little Opera Scenes”

Hugo Wolf’s lieder for chorus and orchestra

Given the special predilection for choral music and orchestral sonorities in late-19th century musical life, it isn’t surprising that, along with his famous lieder with piano, Hugo Wolf also composed some choral songs with orchestral accompaniment. In doing so – as he himself admitted – his aim was to achieve wider recognition. He also scored his piano lieder that seemed to call for the sound of an orchestra.

Wolf had an extraordinary capacity for feeling his way into the spirit of the texts he set, and this allowed him to achieve in his lieder composition a unique congruence between word and music. For an example one need look no further than his setting of Elfenlied. He seems to have composed this piece with solo soprano, women’s chorus and orchestra for a projected opera based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The autograph score retains the indications “Fairies vanish” and “Titania sleeps”, and even more telling is the striking correspondence between the delicacy of the text and the remarkable buoyancy and gracefulness of the music.

Wolf himself regarded some of his lieder as “little opera scenes”, and this observation can surely be applied to Der Feuerreiter, one of his best-known and most successful choral works. It began life in 1888 as a setting for voice and piano of a poem by Eduard Mörike, a text whose demonic power led Wolf a few years later to arrange it for chorus and orchestra. Mörike’s grisly ballad tells the story of an uncanny figure who can detect and is drawn to fires, but who ultimately is burned alive for misusing a splinter of the True Cross for conjuring. Following the text, Wolf subdivides the composition in two parts, the first dramatic, the second rather sinister.

In July 1897, a few months before his mental breakdown, Wolf started work on his second opera Manuel Vanegas, but he was able to draft only a few scenes. The fragment begins with a Frühlingschor, largely orchestrated. As befits this Spring Chorus – part hymn, part dithyramb in character – tenor and female voices alternate. Wolf dispenses with the bass part in this masterly composition.

A Response to the Existential Questions

Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony

Gustav Mahler was a truth-seeker in life and religious in his art. Many contemporaries categorized him as a “philosophizing symphonist”, as “God-seeking” or as a “mystic”. Reading his letters and conversations with his confidante Natalie Bauer-Lechner, one is constantly astonished by his reflectiveness and profundity. He was widely read and preoccupied with God and the world, with music and the arts, with composers and matters of interpretation, with life and death and, above all, with the meaning of existence. He became fixated on the belief in immortality and read extensively in his search for arguments supporting it. In the closing verses of his Second Symphony, completed in 1894, he sought to lend it artistic expression in the Wagnerian sense of art as religion. The verses he authored himself for the symphony’s finale culminate in the declaration “I shall die so as to live”, paraphrasing First Corinthians (1 Cor. 15:36, “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.”).

Composed between 1888 and 1894, the Second Symphony already achieved wide renown in Mahler’s lifetime. The work is a symphonic cantata, oratorio and mystery of redemption all in one, calling for two female soloists, mixed chorus and, in the finale, an organ. Mahler formulated for it an extensive programme, which has survived in three different versions. In the last two, the subject is expressed as the existential and eschatological questions of “Why did you live? Why did you suffer? Is it all nothing but a huge, frightful joke?” And: “What is this life and this death? Is there a hereafter for us? Is it all an empty dream, or has this life of ours, and our death, a meaning?”

Death and resurrection are the ideational poles of the Second Symphony. The subject of the opening movement is death, what Ernst Bloch called “the axe of nothingness”, “the strongest non-utopia”. Analysing the score according to its musical idiom, it becomes clear that passages having the character of a funeral march, requiem, lament and high drama alternate with others that are pastoral, tranquil and visionary in nature. Of importance to a semantic analysis of the work is that two themes are introduced in the development which will play a dominant role in the finale.

By comparison with the first movement, the following Andante moderato is largely idyllic. Portions of it are cheerful and dancelike, and it breaks no ground formally. The movement is divided into five main sections according to the scheme A – B – A1 – B1 – A2 – (Coda), whereby the last three sections are variations of the first two. The first section represents a typical easygoing ländler, whereas the second exhibits features of a scherzo. Mahler saw the movement as an intermezzo and interpreted it programmatically as “an echo of bygone days in the life of the one carried to the grave in the first movement”.

The third movement is linked to Mahler’s song composition. Parts of it are based on the musical substance of his Wunderhorn lied Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt (St. Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fishes) – a text that he regarded as a parable of senselessness. The movement’s programmatic idea is thus the cruel recognition that the meaning of existence can be neither understood nor found: “The Scherzo ends with the appalling outcry of this tortured soul.” In his musical setting of this idea, Mahler deliberately alludes to the “fanfare of terror” with which Beethoven begins the finale of his Ninth Symphony.

The fourth movement – a setting of the Wunderhorn text Urlicht for contralto and orchestra – occupies a key position in the work’s dramaturgy. It replies to the questions raised in the scherzo and leads into the finale. Mahler could not have found a better or more appropriate text for this movement. The poem gives expression to the old longing for mystical union with God and represents, as Mahler explained, “the questioning and agonized searching of the soul for God and for its own eternal existence”.

Mahler found the inspiration for the finale of his Second Symphony on 29 March 1894 at St. Michael’s Church in Hamburg, during the memorial service for the recently deceased conductor Hans von Bülow, as the chorus from the organ loft intoned the Resurrection chorale on a text by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock. After long deliberation he decided to base the vocal section of his gigantic composition, conceived as an apocalyptic vision, on only the first two strophes of the Klopstock text. To those he added six strophes of his own which express his highly personal credo. In the preceding instrumental portion of the movement, making use of the Dies irae motif from the Catholic Mass for the Dead, he graphically depicts a scene from the Last Judgement, illustrating the earthquake and the death march of all living beings. In the extensive programme that he formulated for a performance in Dresden in December 1901, he declared the Last Judgement, before which the faithful tremble, unequivocally to be pure phantasmagoria: “It is no judgement – there are no sinners, no just. None is great, none small. There is no punishment and no reward. An overwhelming love illuminates our being. We know and are.”

Constantin Floros

Translation: Richard Evidon

Bernarda Fink, was born to a Slovenian family in Buenos Aires, where she received her musical education at the Instituto Superior de Arte, which is part of the renowned Teatro Colón. In 1985 she moved to Europe. With a repertory that extends from early Baroque to the 20th century she performs regularly in opera, concert and recital at the major opera and concert venues as well as prominent festivals in Europe, Japan, Australia and the USA. Leading symphony orchestras and many early-music ensembles have invited her to participate in their concerts. In concert she performs with leading conductors including Herbert Blomstedt, Semyon Bychkov, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Mariss Jansons, Riccardo Muti, Sir Simon Rattle and Franz Welser-Möst. She first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in January 1995 under the direction of René Jacobs with a concertante performance of Monteverdi’s Orfeo in the philharmonic chamber music hall. Since then Bernarda Fink has been making regular guest appearances in concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker, e.g. in February 2009 under Sir Simon Rattle’s baton in Schumann’s Das Paradies und die Peri. Most recently she performed lieder by Brahms and Schumann in May last year as part of a vocal quartet. In February 2006 the Austrian Chancellor honoured her with the Austrian Decoration for Science and Art.

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 work together is documented by a busy recording schedule; recently their CD of Kaija Saariaho’s opera L’amour de loin with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester conducted by Kent Nagano won the 2010 Grammy Award for best opera recording. 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, the interdisciplinary event series Broadening the Scope of Choral Music as well as the annual Sing-along Concert. 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 last appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in mid-January 2012 with The Dream of Gerontius by Edward Elgar, conducted by Daniel Baremboim.

Camilla Tilling hails from Linköping in Sweden. She studied at the University of Gothenburg and at London’s Royal College of Music. She has already appeared in many leading opera houses in Europe and the United States of America as well as the Glyndebourne, Drottningholm and Aix-en-Provence Festivals. Among the conductors with whom she has worked are Marc Minkowski, Antonio Pappano, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Emmanuelle Haïm and Semyon Bychkov. Her operatic repertory extends from Handel and Mozart to Rossini, Verdi and Strauss and also includes roles by Debussy and Britten. Among the international concert halls and recital rooms where she has appeared are the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Promenade Concerts, the Wigmore Hall in London and Carnegie Hall in New York. Camilla Tilling made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in mid-December 2007, when she took part in performances of Handel’s Messiah under the direction of William Christie. Her most recent encounter with the orchestra was in April 2010, when she sang in concerts with Bach’s St Matthew Passion.


Harmonia MundiBernarda Fink appears by courtesy of Harmonia Mundi.

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