Even in Berlin, where he has lived for more than a dozen years while conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, you would be hard put to hear Simon Rattle in three different venues in the course of a week. But last week in New York I was lucky enough to manage just that.
The first stop was Carnegie‘s grand Stern Hall, where on Monday the 10th Rattle was conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. I had been to the same hall just two nights earlier to hear Gustavo Dudamel conduct the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra in Messiaen’s Turangalila-symphonie, and I didn’t think things could get much better than that. But even though nothing can match the vital enthusiasm of that group of young musicians—especially on a piece like this, which brought out a wild, earthy, life-affirming side of Messiaen that I had never observed before—the Mahler, under Rattle’s baton, was a discovery of a different order. In place of strength alone, the Philadelphians offered us delicacy, precision, and subtle modulation. The silences and near-silences were almost as telling as the emphatic passages, and the pathos of this lengthy, varying symphony came out in a way that showed Mahler at his best. I have heard Rattle perform similar miracles with his own orchestra, the excellent Berlin Philharmoniker; what surprised me was that could accomplish an equal degree of fine-tuning as a guest conductor (though granted, he and the Philadelphia Orchestra go way back, in a history of enormous mutual affection and respect).
Second up was a Thursday stop at the Metropolitan Opera, where I attended the five-hour performance of Tristan und Isolde. Rattle’s conducting was only part of the draw here; I also wanted to hear Nina Stemme as Isolde, since I had been thrilled by her performance as Elektra in the eponymous Strauss opera last spring. Stemme did not disappoint, and Rattle’s conducting was beyond excellent: I would go so far as to say that the orchestral music was the very best thing about the show. It began with the overture, which started quietly, minus the usual audience applause for the conductor, because Rattle had sneaked into his post early so as to avoid that atmosphere-breaking greeting. And the music built and built throughout the opera, as Wagner meant it to, so that each resurgence of intensity carried us further along in the dream. Unfortunately, this particular dream was disturbed, if not shattered, by the idiotic staging perpetrated by the director Marius Trelinsky and his set designer, Boris Kudlicka. Converted into a noir-dark, movie-shaped rectangle representing a modern-day ocean liner or battle ship, the Met’s stage was overlaid with a series of video projections (mainly of a rotating compass) and interjected flashing lights, all of which reminded us every second that we were sitting uncomfortably in a darkened hall listening to an endless flood of music. This is not the feeling you want with Wagner, and particularly this Wagner, where a sense of timelessness—of becoming immersed in the waves of music, so that you actually lose track of the passage of time—is essential. In the end, I had to shut my eyes in order to enjoy Rattle’s and Stemme’s magnificent achievements.
Finally, on Sunday the 16th, I was back at Carnegie, this time in the smaller Zankel Hall, to hear Rattle conduct the youthful Ensemble Connect in a performance of Hans Zender’s 1993 version of Schubert’s Winterreise, with Mark Padmore in the tenor role. I will go anywhere to hear Padmore do Winterreise, and there is always something to be learned from the process. In this case, although I was nervous about hearing an orchestration of the traditional piano part—even with a small, 20-member orchestra—I found the event exciting and engaging and, when Padmore sang, thrilling beyond belief. The intermittent loudness of the orchestra (expertly guided by Rattle), not to mention the dynamic requirements of Padmore’s own score, forced the tenor to project at a volume I’ve never heard from him before, and I actually sat forward in my seat during those moments, amazed at the combination of vocal strength and perfect musicality. But the intense emotion of Schubert’s lovely song cycle got slightly short shrift in this mode, and next time, if I have a choice, I would prefer to hear Padmore do the Winterreise as he normally does, with one of his brilliant pianist friends like Paul Lewis or Kristian Bezuidenhout. As I said afterward to a friend who had also been in the audience, this Zender adaptation was like the Brecht-Weill version of Winterreise. Or as she said to me, “It was like Winterreise on drugs.”