Rattle, Birmingham excel with Knussen


The story of Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra ranks among the more remarkable in symphonic annals. In 1980 a shaggy-haired, precociously gifted 25-year-old protege of Pierre Boulez is named principal conductor of the Birmingham orchestra, a solid-enough provincial ensemble, but ranked far beneath London's internationally glamorous five orchestras.

Eighteen years later that same orchestra, now much recorded and considered among the best in the world, makes its third tour of the United States (and its fourth of Japan) under that still-youthful-looking ex-Wunderkind, who is now Sir Simon Rattle and among the most famous living conductors.

Rattle is now in his final season as music director of the CBSO and his appearance with that orchestra Friday evening at the Kennedy Center in the Washington Performing Arts Society series gave further evidence of his achievement in Birmingham.

The program was entirely devoted to two composers whose music has been much performed by Rattle during his 18-year tenure in Birmingham.

The 46-year-old composer Oliver Knussen is not only Rattle's near contemporary, but also one of his closest friends.

Knussen's Symphony No. 3 has been championed by conductors as prominent and talented as Andre Previn and Michael Tilson Thomas, but Rattle's performance Friday was the best I have heard.

This closely argued 17-minute work is not easy to put across, but Rattle warmly communicated the emotional thrust of Knussen's complex writing, making the listener believe he was listening to a well-told story as the conductor negotiated his way from the symphony's mysterious opening, through its subtle woodwind trills and whooping brass cheers, to its flickering close.

I wish I could be as enthusiastic about Rattle's performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 7. This is to be sure the most problematic of this composer's symphonies: the most modern, the most apparently loosely organized (particularly the finale) and the most grotesque -- Mahler's direction for the scherzo, "schattenhaft" ("spectral" or "ghastly"), is something of an understatement.

It is not for nothing that the Seventh was Arnold Schoenberg's favorite Mahler symphony.

My problem with Rattle's performance is that he made the music sound too much like Schoenberg and not enough like Mahler. The Seventh Symphony is Mahler at his most cerebral and ironic. But in his dry-eyed, overly analytical approach to this music, Rattle almost completely neglected its passionate weight, its voluptuous softness and its heart-full-of-longing sense of nostalgia. Mahler without tears is not Mahler at all.

Pub Date: 5/18/98

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