Adventures in space and sound

Lotti: Crucifixus a 8

Tallis: Spem in alium

Rundfunkchor Berlin / Simon Rattle

Mahler: Symphony No. 8.

Erika Sunnegårdh, Susan Bullock, Anna Prohaska (sop)

Lilli Paasikivi, Nathalie Stutzmann (cont)

Johan Botha (ten)

David Wilson-Johnson (bar)

John Relyea (bass)

Knaben des Staats- und Domchors Berlin (prepared by Kai-Uwe Jirka)

Rundfunkchor Berlin (prepared by Simon Halsey)

MDR Rundfunkchor Leipzig (prepared by Howard Arman)

Berliner Philharmoniker / Simon Rattle

Philharmonie, Berlin – Thursday, September 15th, 2011.

I must admit that I was somewhat puzzled by this program on paper. I imagine the intention was to compare Mahler’s work for multiple choruses with earlier polychoral music but the truth is that the first movement of the Mahler 8 has a lot more in common with Bach’s Singet den Herrn for example than the two works programmed and it was a bit of a missed opportunity that they did not choose to program that particular work this evening, performed perhaps by one of its finest exponents the other Berlin radio choir, the RIAS Kammerchor. In the end the Lotti was nicely done but the Tallis was something of a missed opportunity. Simon Rattle isn’t known for his work with renaissance choral music and it showed in the Tallis. He just pushed it forward far too much and did not allow the tuttis to register as they should. Another problem was the fact that it was performed with single voices – in a more intimate space it could have worked well, in the Philharmonie, it was just underpowered. It is a shame that they did not combine the two choirs for the Tallis as it could have had a much bigger impact. As it was, the singing was first class.

There were a number of significant cast changes for the Mahler. Originally Christine Brewer and Soile Isokoski were billed on the top line but were replaced by Erika Sunnegårdh and Susan Bullock. It was my first encounter with Sunnegårdh and Bullock I have seen several times. I have seen Bullock twice as Elektra, once in Toronto and once in Newcastle-upon-Tyne with Opera North. She was very good in the role and a generous singer but I also found her rather short on the top. The big question was, in a piece that requires so many top Cs, could Bullock deliver? There were some other cast changes, Karen Cargill called in sick and was replaced by Lilli Paasikivi and David Wilson-Johnson stood in for Matthias Goerne, just as he did for Rattle’s previous performances of the work in London and Birmingham.

This is the third time I have heard Rattle in the piece after his performances in London in 2002 and Birmingham which was subsequently recorded for EMI. I have always found that that particular recording doesn’t quite do justice to the impact that Rattle’s interpretation had live. The sound just seemed too lightweight. It was clear tonight that Rattle had reconsidered his interpretation. He also had the benefit of the outstanding playing of the Berliner Philharmoniker. Tonight the difference between a good orchestra and a truly great one was clear – the playing was in a different league from the Bambergers I had heard in June. This was the first of three scheduled concert performances and there were a few things that didn’t quite convince. First of all, the opening just seemed to lack energy – things didn’t really start to pick up until the ‘accende lumen sensibus’ when they really did pick up. Rattle crowned that moment with a rit a la Bernstein/Tennstedt though not quite as extreme as his illustrious predecessors. What I missed, at first, was a sense of the music being urgent and intense although the playing was fabulous. The boys’ chorus was also superb and managed to cut through the textures magnificently. Rattle pushed through the ‘qui paraclitus diceris’ maybe a little too much, this really is a moment that should luxuriate just before that wonderful coda. The coda itself was stunning, walls of sound though that reckless abandon of his previous performances was missing.

The second movement settled down a lot more aided but the incredible playing of the Berlin strings in the opening. Afterwards, tempi were judged to perfection although I wish he had taken the final chorus much quieter – it started far too loud and I’m sure his singers could have done it.

The solo singing was variable. Sunnegårdh’s somewhat brassy soprano rode the climaxes with ease and she and Bullock provided a thrilling top C in that wonderful bit just before the recapitulation in the first movement. Bullock was sadly a disappointment. She is a singer that I admire very much but she was too often under the note on top and she had a vibrato as wide as the English Channel. Basically, this was a fine singer, completely miscast. Anna Prohaska was a poorly-tuned mater gloriosa.  The rest of the solo singing was much better. Nathalie Stutzmann was a luxury in the second mezzo part and David Wilson-Johnson was excellent in his brief interjections. Johan Botha is one of the finest exponents of the tenor part around today and initially he seemed out of sorts in the first movement. Afterwards he settled down and produced a ‘blicket auf’ of wonderful amplitude. John Relyea sang the bass part better than I have ever heard it sung before – his tone is just stunning to listen to and he was a strong presence in the ensembles.

The choral singing was remarkable for its blend and tuning although less so in terms of volume. I felt that they were undermanned for the size of the hall and some of the individual fugal entries sounded underpowered. It was choral singing of the very best quality though and I’m sure that it will come across a lot better in the live cinema and internet relays planned for Sunday evening.

Overall, this was an evening to remember although it didn’t quite have the same impact as the Mahler 2nd that I heard Rattle conduct last October nor Rattle’s previous performances of the work. What it did have was outstanding playing from an orchestra at the very top of its game and that is certainly a reason to celebrate.

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