Any professional classical musician, I venture to suggest, is able to take a musical phrase and play it with passion, adding swell, swing or whatever form of colouration takes it out of the ordinary. But for forty or more musicians to be doing that together – adding exactly the same dynamic contour to a phrase with pin-point accurate timing – is a feat which few orchestras can accomplish. The Berliner Philharmoniker can, and at the Royal Festival Hall last night, they brought this extraordinary collective virtuosity to bear on Brahms’ Symphony no. 1 in C minor.

Sir Simon Rattle © Monika Rittershaus
Sir Simon Rattle
© Monika Rittershaus

Brahms 1 isn’t the greatest symphony anyone ever wrote – even diehard Brahms aficionados don't think it's his best. But with the calibre of the Berlin Phil’s playing, who cares? They made it great, investing every bar with colour and intensity. This is an orchestra that gets the technical things right when it matters, and we had a shining example of this from the start: the loudness of every beat of Rainer Seeger’s timpani was identical to the tiniest fraction of a decibel, the timing even to the millisecond, providing the underpinning on which the orchestra built the gathering tension. The precision of the strings gave complete clarity to each shift in mood and meaning through the span of the whole work: exquisite calm in the second movement, a gracious congeniality in the third and the journey into enlightenment of the fourth. We all know that the main theme is disconcertingly similar to the Ode to Joy in Beethoven’s Ninth but isn’t as good, but it can still be made into a thoroughly uplifting experience. And it’s clear that the musicians were uplifted, none more so than principal violist Máté Szűcs, whose face was suffused with beatific radiance for the whole symphony.

With the variety of different orchestral performance styles now doing the rounds, Brahms can sound very different in different hands. In spite of the array of virtuoso woodwind players in the Berlin Phil, the strings predominated in the sound here: in the majority of passages, woodwind and horns filled in the colour rather than taking charge. The string sound was characterised by clarity and dynamic flair rather than lushness. Those wanting a guided tour of the work (myself included) will have been happy, those wanting the maximum gorgeousness of string tone might not.

Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker © Monika Rittershaus
Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker
© Monika Rittershaus

It takes a wicked sense of humour to cast such a collection of classy professionals as a bunch of naughty children, but that’s how Jörg Widmann’s Tanz auf dem Vulkan (Dance on the volcano), written as the Berlin Phil’s farewell gift for Sir Simon Rattle, started the concert. With the orchestra just finished tuning, a percussionist holds his sticks above his head and hits them together, rock-and-roll style, for the orchestra to launch into a big-band jazz shuffle. Some bars later, Rattle marches in and glares, they fall sheepishly silent and the “real” work begins. A grumble of double basses played below the bridge starts a fragmented, threatening passage which develops into a real show-off piece for the orchestra, giving them the chance to produce myriad colours. The fragments gradually cohere into a warped, deviant child of a waltz followed by a demonic thing that might have been a march. Eventually, Rattle storms off and the orchestra flips straight back into the jazz shuffle. Grins all round…

I wish I could say that I enjoyed Witold Lutosławski’s Symphony no. 3 a fraction as much. The explosive four note entry – to which the music returns at several points – marked this as the work of a composer who can create orchestral effects, a point that was reinforced throughout this half-hour piece. But the music never really defragments: whenever Lutosławski  allows the music to cohere for a few bars, he can’t resist breaking the mood with some intervention from elsewhere in the orchestra. There were all sorts of demonstrations of orchestral virtuosity that I’m sure the players enjoyed greatly, but which left me cold.

But then, after the break, a Brahms performance that left us all breathless, with just enough energy for a giant standing ovation for a somewhat emotional looking Rattle and an orchestra who, rightly or wrongly, looked like they will miss him. A rare treat.