By Richard P. Townsend
Sir Simon Rattle, chief conductor and artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic, guest conducted Los Angele’s orchestra last weekend at Disney Hall in a memorable and brilliantly curated program of high Romantic Germanic music: Wagner, Bruckner and Mahler, spiked with a modern piece that demonstrated Ligeti’s connection to the earlier composers.
As for Sir Simon himself, it was quite clear during the concert that we were witnessing one of today’s greatest conductors. Rarely if ever have I seen someone conduct with such command: sure yet gentle, even offhand, he communicated both specificity and sweep. It was a memorable performance (attended the evening of the 5th). The orchestra responded brilliantly to its former principal guest conductor, and Rattle’s close associate whom he mentored early on, Gustavo Dudamel—LA’s current music director—was in the audience, closely following the music.
At face value, Rattle’s programming was obvious enough, for all the composers on the night’s program at one time or another gravitated to Vienna. (In Wagner’s case, it was more like Vienna—through his heavy influence on its composers, most notably Bruckner—gravitated to him; György Ligeti, although born and studied in Hungary, spent much of his life in Vienna). But more profoundly, the pieces on the program related structurally and thematically to each other. The program persuasively argued for the Romantic and Late Romantic Germanic tradition to be seen as a foundation for 20th-century music, otherwise largely credited to the Second Viennese school of Schönberg, Berg and Webern in the first years of the 20th century. Rattle began with Ligeti’s Atmosphères (1961) and led without pause into the Prelude from Act I of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin. The next piece was the infrequently performed Rükert-Lieder by Gustav Mahler and after intermission, Anton Bruckner’s final masterpiece, his 9th Symphony. Beginning with the late 19th-century lushness of orchestration, each piece imbued with riots of orchestral color and texture, all but the Mahler songs employed building blocks of music: sonic walls of double and triple fortissimos alternating with quiet, mystical pianissimos. This was not a pointless exercise, for as a result we understood the ongoing impact of this sound world, through Ligeti in the 1960s to the present day. Bruckner is noteworthy for his perceived influence on today’s music, regarded as the grandfather of Minimalism, with his repeated musical motifs and plateaus of sound. This directly relates to the fact that Bruckner was a master organist, in residence at Vienna’s St. Florian’s and that the organ was never far from his mind. He structured his music with sudden changes in volume and musical theme, akin to pulling out organ stops which change character and volume. These connections are not lost on the LA Philharmonic, which had just given the West Coast premiere of Minimalist master Philip Glass’s own ninth symphony a few weeks earlier.
Ligeti’s Atmosphères, a fairly brief piece around ten minutes, is one of the composer’s earliest orchestral works. Its swells or groans of dissonant, sometimes shrill, clusters of notes, punctuated by moments of gossamer music, builds in the first half to a massive shriek followed by low rumbling strings and a few more musical swells with a quiet end. Its otherworldly and mystical air well explains why Stanley Kubrick used it for one of the finest science fiction films of all time, 2001: A Space Odyssey (along with three other of his compositions) as well as incorporating his music into The Shining and his last film, Eyes Wide Shut. While Ligeti’s is not a household name, the general public has come to identify his music as quintessentially modern, avant-garde in its austere soundscape. Unfortunately the delicacy of Ligeti’s music was seriously marred by a one constant cougher, who evidently would not leave the concert hall, but kept hacking, which seemed to encourage several others. It was seriously disrespectful to the music, the musicians, and the audience.
Richard Wagner’s prelude to the first act of his opera Lohengrin (1848) opens with pianissimo strings, shimmering ethereally, and in this musical vision of the Holy Grail (the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper) it builds to a “Wagnerian” climax before ending, closing as it had begun with pianissimo strings. The story of Lohengrin, incidentally, is of a knight in the service of the Holy Grail. Along the way, we encounter a good king, a wicked guardian and his witch of a wife, and a young girl who falls in love with Lohengrin but loses him because of her loss of faith. The subject of Faith is dealt with in both the Mahler and the Bruckner: the triumph of faith in Mahler’s third song—Um Mitternacht—and Bruckner’s dedication of his last symphony, the Ninth, to his “Dear God.”
Mahler’s Rükert-Leider (1901), five settings from the poetry of Friedrich Rükert, started off charmingly with two brief songs. The third, Um Mitternacht (At Midnight) at first interestingly ominous, describes one’s racing thoughts late at night. Regrettably, it turns triumphant and sanctimonious (“I surrendered my strength into your hands! Lord!”), Mahler’s music waxing sentimental and replete with closing hymn-like cadence. However, the last, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the world), was worth the price of admission alone and gave Magdalena Kožená, the Czech mezzo-soprano and wife of Sir Simon a chance to really shine with her quiet expressivity and beautifully shaped and sustained sound. Kožená was intense, bringing both drama and pathos to the words describing her indifference to the world, as she now rested in a quiet realm—her own heaven—living on in her love and her song while the music diminished to nothing.
Sir Simon conducted the final piece—the Bruckner Symphony No. 9 in D minor (1887-1896)—without a score. Sometimes called the “Unfinished” as the composer died before producing a finished fourth movement, it was performed here as is customary, with its first three movements. (Even though earlier this year, Sir Simon premiered a version of a fourth, final movement with the Berlin Philharmonic which is available for download.) Having grown up with what are considered the definitive recordings of the Bruckner symphonies—Herbert von Karajan recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic—and having heard in person other distinguished Bruckner interpreters such as Giuseppe Sinopoli, I wasn’t prepared for Rattle’s sheer authority in this realm. Due in part, doubtless, to the persuasiveness of his programming, nevertheless it was his sure conducting that dominated during the hour-long performance. Rattle never made a superfluous gesture, shaping Bruckner’s long musical phrases with long sweeps of his arm and baton. He moved easily from full throttle triple fortissimo to a pianissimo passage wrought with awestruck, mysterious quiet. Yet the effect was never disjointed and the orchestra played seamlessly throughout from the commanding first movement, to the driving, yet dance-like, second movement, and finally to the third, whose beginning echoes the shimmering pianissimo strings of Wagner’s Lohengrin. After the final climax of the massive sonic wall followed by a dramatic pause that seemed to stretch for an eternity, the last measures played out quietly. Rattle provided a crisp cut-off but did not lower his arms for what seemed to be minutes, not allowing the spell to be broken, letting the sound finally dissipate before the hall erupted in applause and standing ovations.