With history bubbling up from its fountains and its sewers, Berlin is a city that does a lot of looking back. So it seemed fitting that the city's flagship orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, arrived at Symphony Hall last night with two extraordinary works of retrospection. The first was "Stele" by the Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag; the second was Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde." Simon Rattle conducted, showcasing the work he has done in Berlin. The orchestra sounded superb, as did the vocal soloists Ben Heppner and Thomas Quasthoff. The concert, presented by the
"Stele" is a trio of connected musical tombstones. Enormous orchestral forces are required; the writing is fiercely expressive. Picture a Mahler symphony placed to simmer all day long on a low flame, producing an Austro-German concentrate of great potency. This is the world of Kurtag, and this orchestra knows it well. "Stele" was written for this group in 1993.
The opening measures nod to Beethoven but then drift purposefully out of focus. At one point, Rattle had the entire orchestra sounding like one large, breathing organism. The second movement, marked "Lamentoso disperato," builds to a climax of great urgency and density but Rattle kept the music sounding clear. Kurtag compares the massive, hazy chords of the finale to the reverberating footsteps of a giant. The Berliners could have etched these gestures more dramatically, but the work overall came across with great effect.
Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde" is a symphony of songs, a set of darkly beautiful meditations on ultimate things. The work was written in 1908 at a time of great personal reckoning and loss. Mahler divides his six settings of ancient Chinese poetry between a tenor and, in this case, a baritone soloist. Many paths to consolation are signaled but not taken, from drunken oblivion to embracing the unalloyed loneliness of autumn. The work culminates in the sublime "Farewell" movement, some of the most glorious music Mahler ever composed. A traveler takes his leave but with graceful acceptance.
Heppner was in brilliant voice, mustering the Wagnerian heft necessary to cut through the roiling orchestra in the first song, and the lightness of touch to bring off what followed. Quasthoff sang with a luminous fusion of musical and poetic intention, making the meaning of each word part of his delivery. The orchestra had its moments of ensemble drift but overall sounded like the jewel that it is. Flute and oboe solos were of notable delicacy; the brass sound was firm but never overpowering. Mahler's remarkable final bars tell of a world at once reenchanted and grown distant. This orchestra did them justice, which is itself high praise.