The 2016-2017 concert season started on a bad note for the Philadelphia Orchestra. The members of the ensemble went on strike just hours before the inaugural gala and the very first performance had to be cancelled. Differences between orchestra and management were bridged in the following couple of days though and the Philadelphians were eager to rapidly prove again that they are one of the greatest orchestras in the world. They certainly did so at Carnegie Hall, in Mahler's challenging Sixth Symphony under the baton of guest conductor Sir Simon Rattle. The Philadelphia Orchestra is the only American ensemble that Rattle conducts on a regular basis and his visits have always elicited – especially in Mahler’s music – an extraordinary level of playing, full of energy and determination, from this band.

Sir Simon Rattle at Carnegie Hall © Chris Lee
Sir Simon Rattle at Carnegie Hall
© Chris Lee

The symphony has a special significance for the conductor. Rattle made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker with this work in November 1987 and its intensity of expression has always seemed to be very well suited to his temperament. His vision is somehow equidistant from the historical extremes represented by Bernstein’s overt melodramatic modus operandi and Boulez’s analytical, emotionless deconstruction of the score. In terms of the choices that every conductor faces when interpreting the Sixth, Rattle didn’t reinstate the third fateful hammer stroke in the Finale and he opted for the Andante before Scherzo sequence of the middle movements, launching into the Finale almost without pause.

In his approach, Rattle was fully aware that this is the most classical of Mahler’s symphonies, his first four movement, purely instrumental attempt since his First. On the other hand, while emphasizing symmetry wherever he could find it, the conductor didn’t forget at any point that the composer constantly challenged conventions, reaching in this score emotionally disturbing sonic extremes never before imagined. In this music, full of semantic ambiguities, the conductor successfully kept a balance between deference and irony, pastoral visions and alienating marches full of turmoil, rests and outbursts, between lingering on a particular detail and the need to relentlessly move forward among abrupt shifts in mood.

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall © Chris Lee
Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall
© Chris Lee

A lot has been written about the future that this music “predicts”. This forecasting can obviously be interpreted on multiple levels. First and foremost there is the musical one. There could be little doubt that there is a direct link from Mahler Sixth Symphony to essential compositions of the 20th century by Webern, Berg, Messiaen, Shostakovich… On the other hand, it is doubtful that the raw violence of the Finale is a reflection of the brutality of the looming First World War. There is also the question of the prophetically autobiographical “blows of fate” Alma Mahler mentioned years later. Everyone refers to them when “explaining” the meaning of this music, forgetting that the symphony was written during one of the most peaceful periods of Mahler’s life and that the composer himself wanted to get away, at the time, from any programmatic connotations, believing that the pure, abstract qualities of his music should be the ones accentuated in any performance.

Rattle placed a special emphasis in this Carnegie Hall performance on the quality of the sound. He persistently pushed forward the lower strings, enveloping the overall structure in a dark hue. The orchestra produced a glorious but subtle full sound with Wagnerian reminiscences – the conductor is currently leading a series of Tristan und Isolde performances at the Metropolitan Opera. Rattle's Scherzo was defiant. In the Andante, even the passionate climaxes were played in a cantabile vein. Rattle managed beautifully the pace of the dialogue between strings, woodwinds and brass at the beginning of this movement. The music meandered around from the first theme introduced by the violins to the second, introduced by the English horn with superb interventions by oboe (in between) and horn (afterwards). In the Finale, conductor and orchestra made palpable the emotional instability. The heavy brass and percussion were not overwhelming. The final chord was a true, hard to forget coup de grâce.