Glitter, mercury as Sir Simon Rattle leads Berlin Philharmonic in Boston
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The Berlin Philharmonic, on its final American tour with its outgoing chief conductor, Sir Simon Rattle, filled Symphony Hall on Friday with a positively circumnavigational program, presented by Celebrity Series of Boston: Pierre Boulez's "Éclat" and Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 7, recapitulating the 1999 concert that convinced orchestra and conductor to join forces. Contrasts were obvious: high modernism and high Romanticism, compact and meticulous versus sprawling and replete. But then again, both works arc across enigmatic centers (a stretch of sparse, isolated sounds in the Boulez, a shadowy, surreal scherzo in the Mahler). And both make special use of impulse and instability.
"Éclat," a 10-minute microcosm for 15 instruments, is a box of avant-garde glitter, full of Boulez's characteristic coruscating cascades. But it is also an experiment in command and control — a dialectic between precise attacks and free reverberation. Sustaining instruments offer discreet, then overt cushions in the work's outer sections, but the bulk is given over to instruments that ring: bells and vibraphone, guitar and mandolin, harp and cimbalom, piano and celeste, all sharp points and liminal decay.
The timing and even the order of most events are not fixed, controlled by the conductor on the fly. What seems loose on the page proved anything but: The musical time was stretched taut. Again and again, Rattle charged up the space between the notes with energetic stillness, then released it with a sudden cue and a spark of sound. The playing had purpose and polish throughout. "Éclat" cogently resonated.
The Boulez expressively held its breath; the Mahler barely paused for it. Harmonically volatile, rhythmically mercurial, the Seventh seems forever trying to be more pieces of music than it is. Conductor and orchestra reveled in the multiplicity. Rattle's pacing was broad enough to let Mahler's dense counterpoint tangle without letting the thicket impede the journey. The ensemble, practically swamping the stage, leveraged its deep, layered sound into a cauldron of swirling color.
The work is a famously recalcitrant challenge, especially its finale, in which character and tempo shift, fast and disconcertingly furious. This performance's solution, and a convincing one, was to let the music be exactly as weird as it is. A tall order: Only considerable virtuosity from podium and players ensured that every mood immediately registered, every phrase immediately sang, every rhythmic jump-cut immediately locked into place.
Mahler's unorthodox resolution of the symphony's compounding possibilities — which is to not resolve them at all — turned riotously generous: a mass of contradictions, anxiously but exuberantly cohabiting the same jubilant trajectory. For a little while, anyway, the possibility felt real.
Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. At Symphony Hall, Nov. 11