Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Rattle, Barbican Hall

Posted on February 22nd, 2011

They’ve called this unprecedented five-day residency “The London Concerts” and having already shown off the youthful core of players at the heart of this venerable and venerated orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra duly expanded from chamber to symphonic proportions and crossed the river from the Southbank to the Barbican for what was by any standards a wondrous display of high-end artistry.

The musical intricacies of the programming for this series – with Simon Rattle’s fingerprints much in evidence – now shifted into neo-classical mode with Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagète prefacing Mahler’s 4th Symphony to open magic casements on to dream-like landscapes. It’s impossible to hear the Stravinsky without referencing (for those of us lucky enough to have seen it) George Balanchine’s exquisite “shades of white” choreography. But just that description alone would suffice in characterising the marble-like purity of the score. This is classicism with a luxurious twist and the Berlin Philharmonic strings gave us fabulous amplitude but with a curvaceous chamber-like flexibility.

The entire sound had that quality of levitation about it, as if we’d died and joined Stravinsky in his heaven. The Berliners’ deep stringy mahogany sound was deliciously offset by the art deco suavity of the penultimate set-piece – the Grecian equivalent of some piss-elegant society tea-dance. The final pizzicato evaporated into a chord that was no more than a whisper in the air. Hearing was believing.

And so the sound of distant sleighbells ushered in Mahler’s lost childhood. Rattle’s account of the 4th Symphony may not have conveyed the implied innocence of the music – it was far too sophisticated and “knowing” for that – but it certainly caught the breathless volatility of it, the ever shifting texture micro-managed to throw everything into startlingly high relief. It was all the things that Rattle’s disappointing new recording of the 2nd Symphony inexplicably was not – the stuff of childhood nightmares brought with it edgy extremes and big surprises. The shock of newness.

The playing simply took the breath away – as refulgent and full-blooded as it was airy and refined. The breathtaking subito pianissimos, sighing glissandi that barely grazed the strings, poetic woodwind, spectacular first horn playing, soprano Christine Schäfer’s theatrical arrival at the “heaven’s gate” climax of the slow movement. She had tales to tell and told them with breathless eagerness. I stopped taking notes about halfway through the performance. Words would not suffice.

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