After the slow, mysterious B flat minor introduction to Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, as if running fingers along castle walls in darkness to grope your way, the moment the Berliner Philharmoniker hit the Allegro – in the ‘right’ key – you understand why Sir Simon Rattle wants a new concert hall for London. This was my first visit to Berlin’s Philharmonie and the sound when the orchestra burst into those fortissimo chords nearly floored me. Considering the orchestra’s scaled down size – 41 strings – and its compact seating arrangement, the sound packs a remarkable punch, yet without losing any clarity.  

Sir Simon Rattle © Monika Rittershaus
Sir Simon Rattle
© Monika Rittershaus
The Philharmonie resembles a giant, golden honeycomb both from the outside (in terms of colour) and within, with seating arranged in groups – or cells – slotted around each other. This means that the auditorium never feels crowded, giving an intimate feel to the music-making. Yet, I’ve never seen so many cameras fixed in a concert hall – a reminder of the orchestra’s global brand. The Berliner Philharmoniker is much in demand, whether online or on tour. This was the opening concert in two cycles of Beethoven symphonies, presented non-chronologically, before the orchestra takes them to Paris, Vienna and New York. Despite a few bumps along the way, this was an auspicious start.

When Rattle recorded the Beethoven symphonies (with the Vienna Philharmonic) he adopted various period instrument ‘historically informed’ practices and many of those were evident here, including antiphonal violins, hard timpani sticks, crisp attack and tempi which – although not quite Roger Norrington-esque – nevertheless zipped along. The playing in the Fourth’s Allegro opening movement was brusque, almost angry, while there was earthy energy to the scherzo-like third movement.

Rattle’s conducting style is as much about signalling to the audience as to what to listen out for than it is for the orchestra, which is almost as self-governing in performance as it is off-stage. Flautist Emmanuel Pahud actively led the woodwind section, often turning towards the bassoons behind him. Albrecht Mayer and his fellow oboist sometimes played their phrases to each other rather than to the hall. Rattle was the overseer, the balancer, the controller of dynamics, pulling back the strings to allow the woodwind burbling in the finale to emerge joyously.

When let off the leash, the Berlin cellos and basses are miraculously good. The tempestuous scrabbling in the Fourth’s finale reminded me of the opening storm in Verdi’s Otello, so visceral was their impact. They were even finer in the Seventh, aided by Rattle’s unusual placement of the two contrabassoons; parted from the bassoon cousins, they were placed between basses and horns, almost a continuation of the bass line. It worked splendidly, contrabassoons adding elephantine ballast to the growling double basses' grumbles.

The Seventh suffered a messy start – a split horn plus first and second violins out of synchronisation – but soon picked up. Pahud’s golden flute tone led the first dance in this most dance-like of symphonies, the one which Wagner described as “the apotheosis of the dance”. How right he was. The Vivace first movement was thunderously aggressive at times, yet full of sheer joy. Violas were sonorous in the Allegretto, Rattle broadening the tempo for the central, clarinet-led theme, played with nobility by Wenzel Fuchs. The Presto danced exuberantly – not always elegantly – in the Scherzo.

The Allegro con brio finale neatly sums up the orchestra’s qualities. Look to the back desks of the string players and you’ll see the same energetic commitment as their principal players. The viola section attacked the symphony’s closing pages with such vigour that several players nearly leapt from their seats as Rattle ratcheted up the tempo, many grinning with delight. Beethoven’s Seventh does that to you. I was grinning too.