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Rattle leads Berlin in Mahler and Bruckner

When 12-year-old Simon Rattle heard Mahler's Second Symphony live for the first time, he concluded he wanted to be a conductor.
/ Source: The Associated Press

When 12-year-old Simon Rattle heard Mahler's Second Symphony live for the first time, he concluded he wanted to be a conductor.

Forty-five years later, the "Resurrection" symphony still is central to his life. Now completing his 10th season as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, Rattle led an emotional and enthralling performance of the majestic work on Saturday night, the conclusion of a three-concert trip to Carnegie Hall.

Combined with Bruckner's Ninth Symphony the previous night in the U.S. debut of the latest scholarly revision of the fourth movement, the performances highlighted the amazing technical ability of the Berliners. The double-basses growled. The violins purred. The woodwinds sighed. The brass was noble — both on stage and from the rafters.

String players didn't just have the same bowings, their bodies all turned together at the same angles to produce their burnished, unified sound.

Rattle's Mahler is expansive, much like Leonard Bernstein's. Notes are defined by the silence surrounding them, with the pauses heightening the tension. The sprawling five-movement symphony for soprano, alto and chorus is among the greatest Romantic compositions. It was hard not to feel goose bumps during the stirring finale, when the German-language chorus implores "On the wings that I have won I shall soar aloft! I shall die do that I may live!" The audience responded with a five-minute ovation.

This orchestra has always been linked with the work — Mahler conducted the premiere with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1895.

Joining the orchestra, as they did at Berlin's Philharmonie a week earlier, were mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink and soprano Camilla Tilling. Fink's fourth-movement "Urlicht (Primeval Light)," the first entry of voice, implored in her dusky sound that "man's lot is of such extreme necessity, of such bitter pain." Tilling, shimmering above the orchestra in the final movement, displayed a vibrant voice filled with color. The Westminster Symphonic Choir, led by Joe Miller, was outstanding as it entered in a soft rumble that built to a full-throated roar.

Before the Mahler, the orchestra played three rarities from Hugo Wolf: Fruehlingschor (Spring chorus) from the opera "Manuel Venegas," "Elfenleid (Elves' Song)" and "Der Feuerreiter (The Fire Rider)." Wolf is known for his leider more than his choral writing, and Rattle's programming seemed designed to show these pieces were from a similar era as the Mahler.

Rattle conducted both symphonies without scores, but did consult the sheet music for the Wolf. He concentrated on minute details of orchestra balance and loudness levels from section to section. He shakes his left hand fiercely when he wants to increase the tension. The alternating pizzicato in the second movement of the Bruckner was exquisite.

Bruckner died in 1896 before he could complete his Ninth Symphony, and the fourth movement has always been a bit of a puzzle. Parts of it were orchestrated, some was only in sketch form.

Nicola Samale, Giuseppe Mazzuca, John Phillips and Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs have produced five versions over two decades, the newest completed last year. After the stirring new finale, the audience maintained silence for several seconds before the loud applause began.