Nothing will ever match the euphoria that swept through Berlin 25 years ago, when the Wall came down. But the Berlin Philharmonic came close on Saturday night, with Sir Simon Rattle leading a rapturous performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the sumptuous Municipal House in Prague.

Sir Simon Rattle © Simon Fowler
Sir Simon Rattle
© Simon Fowler

The concert was the finale of a four-city tour commemorating the fall of the Wall, which started in Halle, Germany on 11 November and included stops in Warsaw and Budapest. It was conceived as a tribute to key places and events that contributed to the demise of Communist rule in 1989. The tour also marked a seminal event in the 132-year history of the orchestra, which gave a free concert to welcome East Berliners. “It was a spontaneous reaction and a thrilling experience, one of the most emotional concerts in the Berlin Philharmonic’s history,” according to General Manager Martin Hoffmann.

The orchestra played Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony at that concert, which it had been rehearsing with conductor Daniel Barenboim. For the commemorative tour, as well as anniversary concerts at the Berlin Philharmonie on 6 and 9 November, the Ninth, with its themes of joy and brotherhood, was deemed more appropriate. The four concerts on the road opened with a work by a native 20th century composer.

In Prague, it was Bohuslav Martinů’s Piano Concerto no. 4 with soloist Ivo Kahánek, arguably the finest Czech pianist of his generation (Kahánek is 35). Though he is known primarily for his luminous interpretations of Janáček, Kahánek made the Martinů concerto a signature piece with a memorable performance at the BBC Proms in 2007 with Jiří Bĕlohlávek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Kahánek’s graceful, nuanced approach provided a satisfying counterbalance to Rattle’s boisterous treatment of the concerto, which opened with a burst of color and raced along on surging melodic swells and rifle shots of percussion. The large dimensions made for dramatic contrasts and brilliant fireworks, though were perhaps a bit much for a witty, compact work of just two movements. Immersed in the orchestra, the piano gets few solo lines, but Kahánek made the most of those with a soft touch and smart phrasing. The harp also gets some prominent moments, and positioning it at the front of the stage added a fine filigree to the piece.

Working without a score, Rattle ushered in a full-blooded Ninth with a thunderous first movement that exploded off the stage in a maelstrom and set a rapid tempo for the entire symphony. Some details were lost in the volume, but the richness of the music was breathtaking, especially as it developed depth and authority in the second movement. If the rhythms were a bit choppy at times, the momentum that Rattle built was irresistible, culminating in a dazzling rush that had the audience buzzing with excitement in the break after the second movement, as the soloists took their place with the choir.

A softer third movement gave the horns and woodwinds a chance to breathe and glow with the golden tones that characterize the orchestra’s best work. That set the stage for an astonishing fourth, which crackled with anticipation as Rattle drew electric lines from the bass section in the first statement of the theme. With a more measured tempo and tight dynamic control, he layered sweet strings with rippling woodwinds that built to an emotional crescendo for the opening baritone line from Hanno Müller-Brachmann, delivered with power and flair. The other soloists – soprano Sally Matthews, alto Bernarda Fink and tenor Christian Elsner – were equally strong, but quickly overwhelmed by the Prague Philharmonic Choir, a sharp ensemble that outdid itself under Rattle’s slashing baton. The conductor was a show in himself, pivoting, leaping and mouthing the words along with the choir as he conjured resounding waves of exhilarating sound.

Rattle’s gift is creating organic music that starts deep in the orchestra and rises with passionate fervor, which worked to magical effect in the Ninth. A packed house leaped to its feet as the final notes still hung in the air, clearly feeling more than just the excitement of an inspired performance.

In an essay written for the program book, Jiří Stránský, a writer who spent ten years in prison during the Communist era, promised the audience, “You won’t need any words. You will be given understanding in a truly masterful way”. Reaching across decades of deep political and geographic divide, Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic more than fulfilled that promise.

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