M9 | Sir Simon Rattle | Berliner Philharmoniker

by Glenn on August 9, 2014

Cover artwork of Mahler's 9th symphony performed by Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Listen to enough Mahler and you will begin to notice that each conductor/performer tends to emphasize a certain approach to how the music should be played.  Leonard Bernstein heightens emotional content. Pierre Boulez values clarity. Iván Fischer, with his Budapest Festival Orchestra, stresses idiomatic playing. Bernard Haitink takes a hands off approach and allows Mahler to speak for himself.

Rattle’s particular genius is that he brings a balanced approach, pursuing multiple ends without compromising. The music is certainly emotional, but it’s played crisply and cleanly with plenty of folk color, particularly in the woodwinds. The music sounds like Mahler, but Rattle avoids a mannered approach. In short, Rattle brings both his head and his heart to Mahler and the Berliner Philharmoniker responds magnificently.

There is plenty of weight in the opening movement with its six shattering climaxes. This is grave music though not maudlin; the tone of the orchestra is dark but not bleak. The solo instruments display an astounding level of control.

The challenge of the second movement is managing the changes in tempo. Mahler begins the movement with a laid back country dance in a parody of a ländler. Then the tempo picks up abruptly with the second theme. This is sarcastic, mocking music. But then the first tune comes back with the tempo of the second theme. By design this doesn’t work; it’s written to be clunky. Then a third, slower, tune arrives. It’s gorgeous. On the movement goes from one tune, tempo, and affect to another. Rattle manages these transitions smoothly and effectively.

Mahler included some moments of utter stridency in this movement. But the Berlin players bring such warmth and effortlessness to their playing that the music is able to portray the stridency, without being physically painful to listen to.

As well as the BPO has played in the first two movements, it is the third where they excel. There are moments that are huge and they play big. There are moments that require a pure blend of multiple instruments and they play selflessly. When soloists should shine, each principal delivers with masterful playing. Near the end of the movement it is fast and loud–really fast and really loud. It is remarkable how nimbly, yet powerfully, they play. The effect is shattering.

The fourth movement adagio is a long letting go–26 minutes of leave-taking from this earth. A tune, which sounds something like the hymn, “Abide with Me,” is a recurring motif throughout the movement. Neither Mahler nor Rattle and the Berliners “go gentle into that good night.” Resignation is captured so well at the end.

I have a number of Mahler 9’s in my future listening, but I predict this will remain among my favorites. It may even have a definitive quality to it. We will have to see.

Sir Simon Rattle recorded Mahler’s 9th Symphony with the Berliner Philharmoniker in concert, 24–27 October 2007 at the Philharmonie in Berlin.