So, having firmly established himself back in the English capital during his first year at the helm of the LSO, the time came for Sir Simon Rattle to bid farewell to the Berlin Philharmonic: his final concert in the Philharmonie as the great orchestra’s chief conductor. Or, more accurately, a pair of farewell concerts. Even at this one, the first, there was no mistaking the warmth with which the conductor was greeted by the audience: cue standing ovation and unveiled banner, and a good number staying to applaud the conductor long after his orchestra had shaken hands and left the stage.

Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic © Monika Rittershaus
Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic
© Monika Rittershaus

The programme included an appreciation of Rattle’s work in his decade and a half and a year in charge of what’s probably remains – in terms of virtuoso firepower, at least – the greatest orchestra in the world. It hailed his achievements, while also acknowledging the fact that his performances of certain core composers, Beethoven and Brahms among them, remained work in progress. Funnily enough, it offered little appraisal of his Mahler, a composer with which Rattle, ever since an early pioneering recording of Deryck Cooke’s completion of the Tenth Symphony, has been central to his work. It was with Mahler’s great Sixth that Rattle first conducted the Berlin Philharmonic over 30 years ago, and it was that work (given without coupling) that he chose for this concert. 

What was on show was a conductor fully at ease with his mighty band, offering astonishing control that was matched by playing of copper-bottomed security and unsinkable technical brilliance. Rarely will one have the chance to hear this score better played, or attacked with the same mixture of power and clarity, brawny strength and lithe flexibility. This was apparent right from the start, Rattle setting the pace firmly and allowing lyricism to blossom against disciplined martial sternness. There was a generosity to the gloriously played ‘Alma’ episodes, arriving with greater warmth at each return and capped by some fabulous solo work from principal horn Stefan Dohr. 

Simon Rattle says farewell © Monika Rittershaus
Simon Rattle says farewell
© Monika Rittershaus

I noted moments of Haydnesque lightness and Tchaikovskian lilt, as well as textures clearly informed by a conductor well-versed in the Klangfarbenmelodie of the Second Viennese School, particularly in those moments of disintegration that look forward to the finale. But, though there was no doubting the way the the gravelly, gruff double basses had dug deep into the opening of the first movement, it became clear that this was a performance that was unlikely to get its hands dirty. Though conceived across the broadest possible spectrum of colours and dynamics, this was a Mahler 6 of refinement and control. 

The impression was underlined by the Andante moderato (placed second), in which Rattle sometimes gave in to his tendency towards over-determination. The violins’ lines were sung out with melting sweetness and fiery passion but not, for me, enough sense of being unravelled in the moment. On occasion we seemed to be in danger of grinding to a halt – either side of Dominik Wollenweber’s beautifully delivered first little cor anglais solo, for example. At other points, wind players had to dance precariously on the boundary of audibility – although nothing's ever that precarious with these players. Whenever doubts started to creep in in, though, Rattle would build up another perfectly calibrated climax and flood the Philhamonie with bursts of mellow melodic fire. 

A hammer blow © Monika Rittershaus
A hammer blow
© Monika Rittershaus

The Scherzo was impeccably managed, Rattle masterfully shifting gears between gallops and swoons, but there a sense that, despite the massiveness of sound the orchestra was producing, the performance's emotional roots didn't penetrate as deep as they might. This sense persisted into parts of the finale, although conductor and orchestra were galvanised to breathtaking effect by each of the hammer blows, and Rattle’s sense of the movement’s large-scale architecture was never in doubt. Ultimately this was not the shatteringly moving experience a Mahler 6 can be, but it was certainly a stunning performance.