WORKS: Symphony No. 3; Lieder aus Des Knaben Wunderhorn (excerpts)
PERFORMER: Birgit Remmert (contralto), Simon Keenlyside (baritone)City of Birmingham Chorus, Youth Chorus & SO/Simon Rattle
CATALOGUE NO: CDC 5 56657 2
There are certain performances which extend the boundaries of orchestral playing, and this is surely one of them. Surpassing even the standards of Abbado’s rainbow-hued Third, Rattle’s preparation of what will always be ‘his’ orchestra yields phenomenal results. How often, for instance, does one audibly register the halved body of strings Mahler asks for as his first-movement summer marches subtly in, or the effect of violas playing close to the bridge for a significant bar or two? In short, not a moment passes without some heightened beauty of instrumental detail; the woodwind solos in the second and third movements, including the most outstanding piccolo playing I’ve ever heard in an orchestra, would make the angels weep.
Indeed, Rattle finds a heightened pathos in the autumnal rituals of Mahler’s flora and fauna – so the magical posthorn solo, heartbreakingly introduced, comes as special balm. So, too, does Birgit Remmert’s very human liberation from a primeval midnight scene which features spectacular oboe and cor anglais slides for the ‘sound of nature’ Mahler requests. The keenly projected voices of Birmingham boys and women give us matin chimes of unsurpassed freshness, and Rattle refuses to monumentalise the final hymn – suffering and feeling with the utmost intensity right to the superbly recorded final bars. As if this weren’t enough, Rattle and his orchestra slightly outstrip Simon Keenlyside’s characterisations as he bravely takes on both the soldiers and the country girls of the folk-anthology which also informs the symphony, Des knaben Wunderhorn. Even so, Keenlyside’s baritone, rich and gleaming at both extremes of the register, is never less than companionable. David Nice