Wolf: Selected Songs; Mahler: Symphony No. 2

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra| Westminster Symphonic Choir | Sir Simon Rattle

Carnegie Hall, New York, 1 March 2012 4 stars

Rattle In his three year tenure at Carnegie Hall, Mahler only selected from his own work his first two symphonies, even though he had seven (and later eight) from which to choose. He had been stung before by bad critical receptions and exhibited in New York a rather uncharacteristic timidity in choice of repertoire. He toyed seriously with the idea of presenting the world premiere of The Song of the Night on 57th Street, but in the end opted for the friendlier confines of Prague. Mahler's most radical programming was his championship of the "Pathetique" of Tchaikovsky, with its experimental 5/4 time signature in the second movement, even as he himself described the piece as "so bad that even the cat won't play with it." On Saturday evening, Sir Simon Rattle brought the orchestra which had given the world premiere of The "Resurrection" Symphony, the Berlin Philharmonic, to Carnegie for a confident reading.

The ensemble sound is nonpareil and comforting to those of us who initially questioned the marriage of Rattle's hard-edged approach fostered in Birmingham and Berlin's silky elocution under Abbado. It now appears that the orchestra's style has triumphed, as this reading was notable for its smooth transitions and elongated phrasing. Clearly these musicians are some of the very best in the world and gaffes are few and far between. In fact, the mellower passages were played about as well as can ever be expected, while the angular moments were courageously breached. Interpretively this was a rather standard reading with some successful signature Rattle touches, such as the instruments in the Carnegie rafters and the flexibility of the maestro's physical gestures adding something to the presentation. Little moments like the introduction of the flute motif, which Mahler described as symbolic of the Egyptian ka or spirit, were highlighted in marvelously well constructed bas relief.

Bernarda Fink possesses one of the truly great mezzo voices of our time and shone in the Roeschen Rot section. Her soprano companion this night was Camilla Tilling, a little outclassed by her neighbor but quite competent nonetheless, flatting badly on only one note. Ms. Tilling had opened the program with the Elfenlied of Hugo Wolf accompanied by the Westminster Symphonic Choir, who added heft to two other efforts by Wolf for voices and orchestra. This was an interesting opening, but scheduling a full intermission just twelve minutes in seemed a bit precious. This is always a logistical problem for Mahler conductors, as his symphonies run long. Mahler himself would pause for a few minutes after the first movement of the Second, but not allow anyone to leave the hall. This first movement was even published – with just a few changes – as the symphonic poem Totenfeier to emphasize its modular nature.

All in all a fine performance, but not one that reached an apex of drama or emotion. The ending was emblematic of the whole. There were no chimes or bells on the stage and, if they were somewhere backstage, they were inaudible. This omission spoke volumes, as the bells are not just a coloristic effect but rather a thematic necessity. An odd phenomenon, as the recent Rattle recording and video awards pride of place to these reminders of Mahler's deep desire to demonstrate his sincerity in converting to Catholicism. In contrast, Saturday's reading never seemed to pass close to the gates of Hell, and its ending was many miles away from the gates of Heaven.

By Fred Kirshnit

Credits: Matthew Dine/ The New York Times