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Neue Berlin

New York
Carnegie Hall
01/26/2006 -  
Hanspeter Kyburz: Noesis
Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 4

Magdalena Kozena (mezzo)
Berlin Philharmonic
Simon Rattle (conductor)

Magdalena Kozena is in town for a run of Cosi fan tutte at the Metropolitan Opera. Her friend Simon Rattle came to visit this week and brought along 100 of his closest friends, known collectively as the Berlin Philharmonic. They appeared together on Thursday night in what I can only describe as a particularly odd concert.

Sir Simon has accomplished quite a bit in his brief tenure at the Philharmonie. Like it or not, and opinion here in New York is decidedly polarized, Rattle has changed the face and sound of this venerable orchestra forever. From the silken beauty of Von Karajan, he has now spun a much grittier, harder-edged sonority, not unlike the glory years in Birmingham. The ensemble is different demographically and, arguably for better or worse, more in tune with 21st century sensibilities.

One aspect of the Rattling of the Berlin cage that is not in dispute is the proliferation of new music. Hanspeter Kyburz was born in Nigeria and, if he ever makes it in the contemporary music biz, will be forever enamored by trivia buffs as a result. His sprawling 25-minute piece Noesis leans rather heavily on the percussion section – from whence Rattle – and seemed a bit predictable. It wasn’t long into the first section when I thought that there had to be a part that would consist of various rhythmic figures hammered out with pauses separating them and that Mr. Rattle would “air conduct” the silence. Sure enough, the third section had just such a contemporary cliché. Still, the performance appeared to be well-executed, although there were some multiple pizzicatos that could have been just sloppiness. I was reminded by this uncertainty that the public thought that the original performances of Beethoven’s Symphony # 5 were filled with “mistakes”. Only later did we all realize that they were written into the score.

The Mahler 4 was inexcusably sloppy from the get-go. Often a European orchestra does not sound at its best on their second night in New York, as the jet lag starts to kick in. The normally precise players were wobbly, and not just in the horn section. But more disturbing was the tepid interpretation of Mr. Rattle. There was very little lilt to the score, the normally danceable second movement just a mishmash of exaggerated effects. It is true that this section is a study in the contrast of dotted rhythms and smooth legato line, but the disjointed clarinet passages were overplayed, cartoonish. To make it worse, the leader never varied these contrasts, producing no sense whatsoever of progression. This wasn’t exactly George Szell at his most subtle.

I have been listening to this piece now for over fifty years and had always thought that there were two ways to sing the finale: either as an innocent child or a doting grandmother. However, Ms. Kozena offered a third path: the witch from Hansel and Gretel. Although she was extremely secure in her lower register, to the point of impressing these tired old ears, this fine mezzo seemed to have little idea of her characterization. Pitch control was excellent, but breath control was poor, as she cut off several phrases before their fruition.

There are three ways to make your entrance in this symphony. The best method, recently employed by Heidi Grant Murphy in the James Levine performance, is to simply sit there for the entire work and stand when it is your turn. However, I do understand that this may be hard on the soloist, and would have been particularly difficult to have to sit through this amateurish performance. A second approach is to enter in the natural pause after the second movement, but this is problematical because audience members then feel the need to applaud your entrance and this breaks the mood so painstakingly established by the composer.

The third alternative is what I like to call the “regal” entrance. Here, the door opens and the singer enters on the cymbal crash almost at the end of the third movement. Ms. Kozena chose this method, but ran into disaster immediately. There was no room for her to glide magisterially to the front and she was forced to try to worm her way up to center stage, finally opting for circumnavigation like a thief in the night.

This was regrettable but hardly devastating. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, her make-up was badly smeared – I checked this observation with a female audience member afterwards to make sure that I wasn’t hallucinating – and the Mahler that came to mind was not the last movement of the 4th but rather the Adagietto from the 5th, as Dirk Bogarde’s hair dye melts in the Lido sun in Visconti’s brilliant Death in Venice. Meanwhile, the band seemed to be ignoring Rattle by this time, going off in their own various directions. I told you that this was an odd concert.

At the premiere of the Mahler 4, the booing was so intense that the composer refused to come back on stage, sending the singer out alone to quell the crowd’s reaction. This night the applause was generous, but considering that this was the Berlin Philharmonic, not anywhere near as hearty as it could have been. Love may mean never having to say that you are sorry, but this particular couple owes those people who paid 195 dollars for a seat a rather big apology.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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