Wednesday 29 November 2017

Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. Mahler: Symphony No 3 in D minor

Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Cornelius Meister, Karen Cargill (Photo DSO Berlin)
Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Cornelius Meister, Karen Cargill (Photo DSO Berlin)
Mahler: Symphony No 3 in D minor; Toshio Hosokawa: Meditation für Orchester;Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, conducted by Cornelius Meister, Karen Cargill mezzo-soprano; Berliner Philharmonie
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on Nov 25 2017 Star rating: 5.0
A symphony of gargantuan proportions that encapsulates the majesty, isolation and beauty of Nature so dear to Mahler’s heart

Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin in June 2016
Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin in June 2016
Mahler worked on his third symphony - a challenging, inspiring and uplifting work like no other and one of my favourites of his symphonic canon - when holding the first conductor’s chair at Hamburg State Opera while at the same time successfully carving out for himself a reputation that would eventually take him to the directorship of the Vienna Court Opera, one of the most influential positions in the musical world at the time.

Mahler's Symphony No 3 in D minor was performed alongside Toshio Hosokawa's Meditation für Orchester at the Berlin Philharmonie on Saturday 25 November 2017, when Cornelius Meister (standing in for an indisposed Robin Ticciati) conducted the Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (DSO), with Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano)

Mahler referred to it as the ‘Great Symphony of Nature’ and it was voted the tenth greatest symphony of all time in a survey carried out by BBC Music Magazine. This is Mahler’s longest work and, indeed, the longest symphony in the standard repertoire - a performance lasts a good 90 minutes. Although planned for seven movements Mahler dumped the last movement but used it later as the finale of his fourth symphony.

Most of the writing was undertaken during the summer months when the opera was not working thereby offering Mahler all the scope and freedom he needed to devote himself to the art of composing. The third symphony (and, indeed, part of the second) was written at the composer’s country retreat of Steinbach-am-Attersee in Upper Austria. Here Mahler (who stayed at Lake Attersee on and off between the years 1893 to 1896) worked in a small cabin overlooking the lake.
Another frequent visitor to the area was the Viennese-born symbolist painter, Gustav Klimt, one of the most prominent members of the Vienna Secession movement who in 1901 painted the Beethoven Frieze for the 14th Vienna Secessionist exhibition in celebration of the composer. The face on the portrait of Beethoven, however, closely resembled that of Mahler with whom Klimt had a respectful relationship.

Cornelius Meister (Photo Marco Borggreve)
Cornelius Meister (Photo Marco Borggreve)
The natural and welcoming environment that surrounded Mahler at Attersee fitted him like a glove while his deep-rooted lyricism, complemented by his flair for poetry and his intrinsic love of Nature was, no doubt, instrumental in creating the ‘Song of Creation’, a deeply profound and a most touching passage of the entire third symphony, that drew from the Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester, exceedingly well led by the youthful Chinese violinist, Wei Lu, some rich and sensuous playing under the baton of Cornelius Meister, who, incidentally, barely made reference to the score. He was deputising for the indisposed Robin Ticciati who only this season took up the post of music director of this orchestra for an initial five-year term.

Without doubt Mahler stands proud alongside such other great Romantic composers of the 19th century as Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner and in his third symphony (completed when he was only 36 years old) that great 19th-century musical tradition was heard to good effect in the first part of the symphony, a 35-minute movement (opening with a decisive bold statement by the horn section) extolling the wonders of Pan, the Greek god of the wild and nature in which the DSO created a sound of infinite orchestral beauty that was exciting and thrilling to hear while the climax to the movement was simply exhilarating highlighting the rich and bright acoustics of the Berlin Philharmonie.

In contrast to the first movement, the second (What the Flowers of the Field Tell Me) was rather quiet and suppressed, showing the prowess and quality of the DSO’s admirable string section whose delicate playing, crafted by its members by years of experience, was sensitive to the core especially in the middle section depicting Nature’s interruption of the idyll. And to quote Mahler: ‘A stormy wind blows across the field, the leaves and flowers moan and cry out to their stems begging the superior powers for deliverance.’

Karen Cargill (Photo K.K. Dundas)
Karen Cargill (Photo K.K. Dundas)
The third movement (What the Animals of the Forest Tell Me), based on a song from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (Mahler repeatedly turned to this work for inspiration throughout his career), tells of the change from spring (represented by the cuckoo) to summer (represented by the nightingale). Excellent playing emanated from the woodwind section, especially the clarinets and bassoons, representing the birds while The Woodbird in Wagner’s Siegfried kept spinning about in my mind all throughout the movement. In fact, Mahler greatly admired Wagner and was also influenced to a certain degree by the philosophers Nietzsche and Schopenhauer who were all the rage among progressively-minded young Austrians such as Mahler during the late 19th century.

Amidst all the humour of forest life Mahler pulled out all stops and came up with a serene and beautiful solo passage for flügelhorn brilliantly played offstage (on this occasion high up in the rafters) to mesmerising effect.

In the fourth movement (What Man Tells Me) featured the Scottish mezzo-soprano, Karen Cargill, whose wonderfully-controlled voice fitted the work so handsomely. Here Mahler set the text of ‘Zarathustra’s Midnight Song’ (from Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra) which extols the message that the universe is in contact flux and that no moment of joy can be singled out. And Mahler cites the most poignant line in the entire book which translates as ‘Joy deeper still than Heartache’. Here Ms Cargill delivered a tender and rewarding reading of Nietzsche’s text to great audience delight who stamped their approval on her performance at curtain-call giving her a thunderous red-hot reception of Mahlerian proportions!

The pealing of bells - both literally and impersonated by trebles - herald the angels’ song of the fifth movement (What The Angels Tell Me) and the boys’ choir from the Staats- und Domchor Berlin sang so tenderly the ‘Armer Kinder Bettlerlied’ (Poor Children’s Begging Song) from Des Knaben Wunderhorn summing up rejoicing transcending death while in Zarathustra's song heavenly joy is the reward of the faithful in the ‘Bettlerlied’.

The boys were in their element, too, repeating the words ‘Bimm, Bamm’ mirroring bell sounds heard above some finely-controlled orchestral playing while the women’s chorus - the Damen des Rundfunkchors Berlin - in the guise of angels sang of The Last Supper.

And the final movement (What Love Tells Me) manifests itself in a riveting and intensely extended adagio in which Mahler excelled himself and commented: ‘In a way I could also name the movement ‘‘What God is telling me’’ in the sense that GOD can only be understood as LOVE.’ Once again the strings of the DSO showed their strength and discipline with some intricate and effortless playing of a movement that opened with a heartbreakingly-lyrical string melody with the forces of the orchestra slowly gathering momentum bar by bar as they travelled on a path to an inexorable climax in which redemption comes about through Divine Love - a very 19th century (and Wagnerian) philosophy.

There is a majestic reference in this movement inasmuch as parts of it echo that of Beethoven and Bruckner while the final pages of Wagner’s fulfilling (and final) work, Parsifal, cut across my mind like a screaming wind racing across a wide-open field.
Mahler's composing cabin at Steinbach-am-Attersee (Photo Wikimedia/ Furukama)
Mahler's composing cabin at Steinbach-am-Attersee (Photo Wikimedia/ Furukama own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The concert, however, opened with a tender, sensitive and thought-provoking 15-minute piece by Hiroshima-born composer, Toshio Hosokawa, entitled Meditation für Orchester dedicated to the victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami off the Pacific coast of Tōhoku. If Mahler’s Third summed up humanity and everlasting love so did Hosokawa’s piece, a work that deeply penetrated the soul releasing the spirit to a higher plane.

Historical note: The Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin harbours a rich and glorious past and was founded in 1946 as the RIAS Symphony Orchestra but renamed the Radio Symphony Orchestra Berlin in 1956. However, it has worked under its current name since 1993. Previous music directors have included the likes of Ferenc Fricsay, Lorin Maazel, Riccardo Chailly, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Kent Nagano.

Mahler: Symphony No 3 in D minor
Toshio Hosokawa: Meditation für Orchester
Berliner Philharmonie,25 November 2017
Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, conducted by Cornelius Meister, Karen Cargill mezzo-soprano,
Damen des Rundfunkchors Berlin (Benjamin Goodson: Choreinstudierung), Staats- und Domchor Berlin (Judith Rautenberg, Felix Hielscher: Choreinstudierung)

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