How marvellous to have Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony and Mahler’s First share the same bill. Completed about eight decades apart, it’s certain we would never have had the later without the former.
Both works begin with searching, dropping intervals framed by a quiet harmonic pedal. “Misterioso” could barely describe the combined effect. Beethoven’s explodes into a fast-paced sonata form, filled with exhilaration, using relatively smaller forces while Mahler takes his time bringing on the fireworks of his full-blown orchestra (including two sets of tympani).
What both need (and abundantly lacked from Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra) is the magical inner tension that must be present if the climaxes are to have any meaning beyond “Well, that was certainly loud and exciting.”
If the devil truly is in the details, then much of those were lost on either side of intermission; conducting without the score but not par coeur—once again—marred the ensemble as even some of the finest players in the world benefit from a reassuring nod before a critical entrance. How else to explain the close-but-no-cigar absence of precision at the end of, for just one example, the second movement of the B-flat Major Symphony?
In the opening “Allegro vivace” everything moved well along the surface only to be thrown out of kilter by a most unwanted affectation in the first note of woodwind eighth-note line which served no artistic purpose and stalled the forward thrust.
The dotted rhythm of the “Adagio” began with promise but had a few outings that were closer to triples than duples. In the Trio of “Scherzo” the violins produced a beautiful answer to the woodwinds’ lines yet their reply wasn’t as timely as Beethoven intended. The Finale was the best of the lot with stellar work from the solo bassoon keeping everyone on their toes.
As for the Mahler, the high points were almost exclusively the BIG moments. The appraoches to them (especially in the first movement) seemed more work than art. If Rattle could shape his phrases rather than merely watch them, the possibilities are endless. The Berliners had a fairly good night with their customary magnificent tutti string tone (and the front desk first violins rendered their few solo interventions with distinction). The solo bass opening of the famous “Frère Jacques” was a touch on the anaemic side; the trumpets and horns (onstage: the off-stage calls in the opening movement were first -rate) had a mixed outing—the traditional “stand and deliver” of the last 70-odd bars by the French horns now seems outdated and slightly obscene in a hall the likes of KKL where an eyes-shut comparison would likely stump the panel.
That these two scores were performed at a high level of technical acumen there can be little doubt; that the subtext in both was largely absent is just another example of the great travesties of current concert life. JWR