You couldn’t avoid it. Everywhere you looked across the idyllic town of Baden-Baden Schiller’s verse “Freude, schöner Götterfunken” decorated posters and banners for the annual Berliner Philharmoniker Osterfestspiele. As part of their blockbuster festival programme, including Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Simon Rattle and his brawny Berliners offered Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in a monumental performance that pretty much put the whole world to shame. Like no other, Maestro Rattle knows how to include an audience in his musical universe.

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

One would almost forget Mitsuko Uchida’s performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 22 in E flat major. If not for this pre-programming, Beethoven’s Ninth tonight would not have contrasted with such Olympian height. In her fluid, emphatic phrasing, Dame Mitsuko elucidated each note. Together with Rattle, who increases his orchestra’s intensity with the mere flex of his fingertips, she sustained a most refined momentum, the audience never released from its concentration.

In the Allegro, Stefan Schweigert immediately fascinated with his bassoon. Throughout both Mozart and Beethoven, he exhibited first class play as he demonstrated his instrument’s iridescent spectrum with an unforgettable vibrancy. In the Andante, the flute passages contrasted delightfully shrilling. During the final movement, the pizzicato plucking peaked Ms Uchida’s bewitching play.

Sculpting Mozart’s passages with the most precise incisions, Ms Uchida captivated through her elegantly focused play, most of the audience listened heads down, eyes closed. At the end of the performance, I felt utterly at peace.

This relaxed mindset made for an exceedingly rare start to Beethoven's Ninth. This was one of those those soul enriching experiences that reminds you that music can be the most powerful weapon.

After the orchestra awakens in the Allegro non troppo, the Berliner strings revved up like the most powerful engine. As the timpani surged underneath, Rattle with inviting gestures propelled the momentum forward. When the throbbing strings’ texture densified, the basses in particular roared, ensnaring the listener in their thickening tapestry. In the Molto vivace, Rattle showed off his orchestra’s capacity for transparency in the fugue, which was a nice contrast to its earlier muscular display.

Before Rattle continued with his suspenseful build up in the Adagio molto, the four soloists emerged onto the stage. And not just any cast! A firmly grounded Florian Boesch, his eyes glowing with joy, demonstrated a tone determined by hope. His deep bass comforted as the Prague Philharmonic Choir joined in with fiery intensity during the Presto final movement. Genia Kuhmeier’s crisp high register strikingly contrasted the mellifluence of Sarah Connolly’s mezzo. 

Substituting for Pavol Breslik, tenor Steve Davislim seemed convincingly overwhelmed, wiping his tears twice during the performance and singing with such dedication, his life seemed dependant on it. At times though, the orchestra and choir’s fury overpowered his voice.

As “Alle Menschen werden Brüder” resonated exuberantly through the auditorium, I realised how privileged I was to have this experience. It took five minutes, but eventually the entire audience of the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden demonstrated their gratitude with a standing ovation. As I walked out of the auditorium, my hands continued to tremble.