"What kind of music," asked Sir Simon Rattle in his preconcert interview, "do you write in the middle of a world war?"
He was introducing Le Tombeau de Couperin by Ravel, which opened a performance that was transmitted live through the digital concert hall and was also the second of three programs this season that will also be beamed to cinemas in Germany, London, Berlin, Prague, Dublin, and Austria. The program itself allowed the great Berliner Philharmoniker an opportunity to express warmth in a collection of works that each sought a better world during a time of personal crisis.
"Often before these great conflicts," said Rattle, "people write music full of tension. Often during the conflict people are writing music that looks back to some kind of idealized past." Ravel dedicated each movement to people he knew who fell in the great war.
Rattle found a quiet ecstasy in this performance of Ravel. He shaped textures with caresses, often looking deep into background textures to focus details. There was a brilliant awakening of sound in the codetta of the Forlane, where the Philharmoniker produced glassy clarity as they tuned the whimsical and unexpected close of this mosaic movement.
The Biblical Songs Op. 99 by Antonín Dvořák and Mahler's Rückert-Lieder, both featuring mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená, were the centerpiece of the program, which closed with Schubert's Unfinished Symphony.
Kožená was able to channel the dramatic intensity of the texts in the Biblical Songs while keeping their fragility intact. After intermission we heard the Rückert-Lieder. These songs are performed in one of several different orderings--in this program Rattle performed them as follows:
Liebst du um Schönheit
Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder
Ich atmet einen linden Duft
Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen
Usually I prefer to hear Um Mitternacht last, because then it creates the kind of questioning in line with the finale of the Mahler's seventh symphony. In this program the quasi-religious closing of Um Mitternacht allowed it to resonate with the Biblical Songs, and its ending seemed sincere and free of paradox.
Closing with Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen was a perfect bridge into the sound world of the unfinished symphony by Schubert..
Rattle led the Berliner Philharmoniker in a performance that voiced the dynamics of this work as Schubert marked them; this is music that presents itself on the verge of the inaudible. The dynamic level changed the meaning of the music itself. The second theme group in G major often sounds joyous in performance. It shouldn't. It is marked pianissimo. It should sound like you are outside on a day like today hearing other folks being happy.
Rattle found the ache within the unfinished and sent it through the digital concert hall intact. Introspective music is especially attractive on cold, rainy days. This program allowed us to make new connections with the music itself, as we shared it live among invisible friends.