Daniel Harding conducted this second Berlin Philharmonic Prom of the weekend, standing in for an indisposed Kirill Petrenko. The first half of the programme, devoted to Schnittke’s Viola Concerto of 1985, was unchanged. This three-movement piece is often described as one of Schnittke’s most successful compositions. It was written for – and dedicated to – Russian viola player Yuri Bashmet. The concerto’s main motif is a theme derived from the German spelling and notation of the performer’s surname, and he has been a consistent advocate of the concerto. Although this was fourth Prom to feature it, it was the first to have a soloist other than the work’s dedicatee.

Daniel Harding and Tabea Zimmermann
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Tabea Zimmermann launched the brief first movement with big, rich tone and passionate vibrato. At times her double-stopping sounded like a second viola had joined her. The unusual orchestra of multiple winds and brass, celesta, harpsichord and piano, and strings minus any violins, had its own fascination. The fast viola arpeggios that opened the second movement were articulated with a precise ferocity. Schnittke’s trademark “polystylism” gave us varieties of dance music, both swooning and high-stepping and military marches. In a mostly sombre work, here was some fun for the Berliners.

The composer grew increasingly ill during the concerto’s composition and had his first heart attack soon after its completion, referring to the final movement, as being “on the threshold of death”. Though it’s as long as the previous two put together, it seems like a slowly expiring coda, deploying remnants of earlier material in a long lamentoso, in which Zimmermann held us spellbound, with compelling phrasing and a range of beautiful tone right up to her whispering highest register. This is still a challenging work for an audience, but surely fit to join the Hindemith, Bartok and Walton among leading 20th-century concertos for viola. Zimmermann received huge acclaim for her dedicated playing.

For whatever reason, the scheduled Shostakovich Tenth Symphony was replaced by Bruckner’s Fourth. Anyone disappointed at the change was compensated by a very good performance. After all, the Berlin Philharmonic knows its Bruckner, being the world’s best – or second-best – Bruckner orchestra, depending on whether there are any Viennese within earshot.

Daniel Harding conducts the Berlin Philharmonic
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

It could not possibly have begun better, its iconic solo played by principal horn Stefan Dohr with legato phrasing and burnished tone that opened a magic casement on to the realm of Bruckner’s Romantic Symphony. The whole section (just four horns, no ‘bumper’) had a fine night in a work that gives them several poetic and stirring moments. They began the Scherzo with sprightly hunting fanfares, answered by the trumpets, the whole movement illustrating this orchestra’s strong sense of corporate rhythm. The slow movement brought the distinguished woodwind principals to the fore, and in the second theme, the violas sang their long phrases as if inspired by Zimmermann’s example.

The Berlin Phil is an army of generals, but they nonetheless need to be guided through such a big piece with its occasional awkward corners. Harding knew when he could more or less let them play, and when a cue or expressive gesture was necessary. His interpretation avoided any fussy shaping of phrases, not overtly giving us ‘his’ Bruckner Four but rather enabling the orchestra’s Bruckner Four. This allowed the music to unfold naturally, Harding managing transitions so that successive sections flowed into each other persuasively. Bruckner struggled to get the finale right, and its narrative thrust is not easy to make convincing. But the coda is a sublime passage, and Harding’s gradual crescendo was ideally judged, right up to the blazing conclusion.