Simon Rattle conducts the L.A. Phil at Walt Disney Concert Hall. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)
It wasn't exactly old times Thursday night when Simon Rattle finally, finally returned to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the first time in 12 years.
Back then the L.A. Phil was a dispirited orchestra. Music director Esa-Pekka Salonenwas on sabbatical, and the orchestra was struggling with poor attendance. The completion of the long-delayed Walt Disney Concert Hall was another three years away and still controversial.
Meanwhile, it would be two more years before Rattle, then 45, would become music director of the Berlin Philharmonic. Former music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony, he had just begun exchanging his tousled British look for Armani. Everything and everyone was in uncertain transition.
But now, after a decade in Berlin, Rattle has magnificently risen to the challenge of his lofty post and is, I would say without hesitation, one of the world's great conductors. The L.A. Phil has become one of the world's proudest and hottest orchestras. And the excellent news is that the chemistry between Rattle — who made his debut with the L.A. Phil as a 24-year-old in 1979 and served as its principal guest conductor throughout the '80s — is still there. Thursday's concert ended with a gloriously grand performance of Bruckner's Ninth Symphony.
Nonetheless, there were introductions to be made. The orchestra's roster has considerably changed in the last dozen years. And this was the occasion for Rattle's third wife, the intense Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozená, to make her L.A. Phil debut by singing Mahler's "Rückert-Lieder" on the first half of the program.
Rattle has retained his flair for curious, enlightening programs. That he began Thursday with György Ligeti's spacey 1969 "Atmosphères" is not in itself anything unusual for the L.A. Phil. This is practically Hollywood music, Stanley Kubrick having used it famously in "2001: A Space Odyssey." It is also L.A. Phil music. Zubin Mehta conducted it at the Hollywood Bowl. Salonen is a longtime Ligeti-ite. Gustavo Dudamel opened a program at Disney Hall in 2008 with "Atmosphères."
But Rattle bled Ligeti's otherworldly harmonies directly into Wagner's "Lohengrin" Prelude, segueing into it without a pause. Wagner's programmatic intention here had been to entice a heavenly light onto the Holy Grail, and Rattle's innovation, worthy of attention from a very large telescope array, was to extend the origin of that radiance many billion light years further in space. Those indescribably vibrant Ligeti sounds were spectacularly present in the Disney acoustic, and when the big "Lohengrin" climax occurred, an incredible journey had come to an end.
The Mahler "Rückert-Lieder," five songs about love, beauty and the transcendental transience of all things, are Mahler settings of texts by the German poet Friedrich Rückert. One song, "Ich bin der Welt Abhanden Gekommen" ("I am Lost to the World"), is the saddest of all songs and perhaps the most movingly beautiful.
Berliners like to gripe, at least behind Rattle's back, about Kozená's prominence with her husband's orchestra. We should all be so lucky. She just performed "Carmen" in concert with Rattle and it can be seen on the Berlin Philharmonic's Digital Concert Hall online (for a fee), and it is revelatory performance, a thrice-familiar work illuminated anew. A recent DVD of Rattle's Berlin performance of Bach's "St. Matthew" Passion, in a staging by Peter Sellars, also features Kozená, and plunges into the absolute depths of profundity.
Kozená's "Rückert-Lieder" were on the light side, no doubt intentionally so. Her tone is rich and lustrous, and her dramatic concentration exhibited full passion. But Rattle kept the orchestra in a Ligeti world, bringing out a chamber music delicacy of instrumental color. Kozená, too, avoided darker Mahlerian sentiments finding the magnetic hints of joy and love that provides a rare poignancy to Mahler even at his most melancholy.
The Bruckner was strange too. Rattle produced a remarkably bold sound easily capable of rafter shaking. Bruckner's rapt melodies were given maximum expression with a stirring string tone that also felt downright physical. Rattle asked for complex textures, especially in the way he brought Bruckner's weird harmonies in the brass. As though Rattle had Ligeti still throbbing in his ears, his Bruckner vibrated on a celestial plane.
The Ninth is the composer's last symphony, with an unfinished Finale, and so Rattle left us close to where we had begun, in that hanging state after a slow movement that has a beyond-the-grave gravity, that is weighty and weightless at the same time.
Yet last fall Rattle made an exciting, convincing case for a completion of the Finale, which he premiered in Berlin (the complete symphony is also available on the orchestra's Digital Concert Hall). The trade-off in Disney was apparently Kozená's Mahler for the Finale. It wasn't a bad deal, but Rattle did leave an audience, even after a quite long program, wanting more. Let it please not be another dozen years.
Magdalena Kozena stretches her flexible voice
Simon Rattle wins over the Berlin Phil and its Fan
Music review: Simon Rattle and Berlin Philharmonic triumphant at Disney Hall
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Who: Mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena and conductor Simon Rattle
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, downtown. L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.
Information: (323) 850-2000 or http://www.laphil.com