Following three nights of Sibelius at the Barbican Centre, this was the second outing in the Royal Festival Hall for the Berliner Philharmoniker and Simon Rattle performing Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony, the first being the night before and broadcast on BBC Radio 3.
They couldn’t leave London, though, without showing off something from the contemporary repertoire that Rattle has programmed so assiduously during his Berlin tenure. The title of Helmut Lachenmann’s Tableau (1989) gives nothing away about the piece, a 12-minute soundscape of music emerging from noise and retreating back into it. Sighs, clicks, knockings, scratching and any number of things you can do with an instrument without playing it in the conventional sense seem to manipulate themselves into a tone, then a scale or an arpeggio. It’s like music has gone back to its roots to consider its position, allowing the listener to eavesdrop on the result. The process of cause and effect has a dream-like logic that expands the piece’s short time-span into something with huge spiritual implications. Every event explains what happens next with enthralling cogency, leaving you adrift with admiration for its level of imagination. Very often it was impossible to discern how a particular noise, tone or timbre was arrived at, but the Berliners delivered it all with magisterial panache, although in one more turbulent passage I did wonder if a flying drumstick was part of the scoring. The 79-year-old composer, the guru of “musique concrète instrumentale”, was in the audience, looking every inch the mystic who bends sound.
One of Lachenmann’s gestures was a barely tonal shudder, which linked neatly with the first thing we hear in Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony, a work that has nurtured Rattle throughout his career. The Symphony’s progress from rage at the prospect of annihilation to glorious reaffirmation of faith was assured. The funeral-rites of the first movement marched with trenchant deliberation, and Rattle sustained a sinister undertow of pressure, unleashed to savage effect in the colossal climax. Just as astonishing was to be reminded of the quality of the Berliners’ sound in its weight, solidity and bloom, and their playing was so responsive and immediate that it was easy to imagine them all playing from memory – indeed, Rattle, the two singers and choruses were all off the book. Just to hear the oboe’s magical first entry or a later solo passage from the leader took you to onto another level of orchestral heaven.
In the Ländler second movement, Rattle cleverly trickled bitterness into the blue-sky nostalgia, the strings’ elegant, Viennese-style portamento acquiring a blush of sarcasm, which accumulated rapidly into disgust in the ‘St Anthony’s sermon to the fishes’ movement. Unfortunately, the fine balance between narrative and mood was broken in ‘Urlicht’ by Magdalena Kožená’s oddly confrontational, histrionic rendition, far removed from the otherworldly message so beautifully realised by the off-stage band, and it diminished the eruption into the drama of the finale. Nevertheless, the behind the scenes musicians cast their spell in their evocation of huge vistas, Kate Royal’s soprano soared into the ether with radiant stillness and dignity, and the combined choruses were sensational, whether in the precise barely-audible ensemble of all those whispered German ‘sch’ sounds lifting the finale heavenwards or in their glorious peroration that folded the audience into Mahler’s pan-religious vision, the woofy electronic organ not exactly enhancing the Berliners’ majestic tutti.