Outside, it was as cold as Narnia. But as a lone flute piped the haunting opening phrases of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, we were transported to the warmth of a dreamy afternoon. We were off on a journey around European folk-tales and legends at the end of the 19th century. Debussy’s work was based on a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé, in which, through a stream of imagery, he describes a mythical creature’s post-slumber pursuit of nymphs in forest glades, before succumbing to intoxicating sleep once more. Debussy called his piece a ‘free illustration’ rather than a literal interpretation of the poem, simply conjuring up a series of settings for the dreams and desires of the faun. Rather in the manner of impressionist painting, the music was harmonically groundbreaking, blurring the usual boundaries of tonality. The poet loved it, apparently, recognising that the music drew out the poem’s emotion against a background of warmer colours.

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

Colour, light and shade were in good hands with Sir Simon Rattle. Working without a score throughout the performance, his close communication with his orchestra was palpable. Minimum movement coaxed maximum expression. The sound, in a word, was gorgeous. Afterwards Rattle ensured that his key players were acknowledged, not merely by standing them up to take their applause but by wading through the ranks to shake hands. Imagine being given the responsibility of opening a concert in the illustrious surroundings of No. 1, Herbert-von-Karajan-Strasse. The flautist did a fine job and the audience was hooked.

If the Debussy was abstract, Dvořák’s The Golden Spinning Wheel portrays Czech poet Karel Jaromír Erben’s absurdly gruesome fairy-tale much more literally. Concertgoers of a nervous disposition may have preferred to enjoy the music at face value, rather than concern themselves with its interpretation. With a love story at its heart, the music is nevertheless required to depict the devious deeds of a wicked stepmother, ranging from impersonation to mutilation and murder. The spinning wheel (with magical, musical properties) plays a central role in restoring life and order. As well as using a single theme to represent each central character, the composer’s skill lay in mirroring the metre of Erben’s poetry. The whole thing set off at a cracking pace with an F major hunting motif in the horns, accelerating into a gallop. This contrasted with romantic legato passages, with the leader of the orchestra eliciting an exquisite love theme. Cellos in a minor key darkened the mood, followed by thunder on the timpani, setting the scene for inevitable mayhem. The orchestra tucked into symbolism galore, and they looked as though they were having fun. The brass section was impressive, with rare pianissimo passages supremely controlled and especially effective.

The inspiration for Schoenberg’s early work Verklärte Nacht (‘Transfigured Night’) was a poem by Richard Dehmel, and, like the two previous pieces, it has a forest setting. Two lovers are walking, the woman racked with guilt at being pregnant with another man’s child, but her confession strengthens their bond, her companion reassuring her that the power of their love will transform the unborn baby into his own. Originally composed as a string sextet, we heard the revised orchestral version. It was, however, evident that the music depicted a conversation between individuals, particularly in the touching interaction between Leader and Principal Viola. The various techniques employed by the strings in general created a highly charged atmosphere, wringing out every ounce of expression and emotion. Delicious playing, which entirely suited the subject-matter of the piece.

A night-time walk also features in Elgar’s Enigma Variations. This standard of the English repertoire consists of a series of fourteen portraits of the composer’s friends, to whom he has given nicknames. The ninth and most famous variation, ‘Nimrod’, depicts Augustus Jaeger (Jaeger being German for hunter, and Nimrod being a biblical hunter), walking with Elgar and giving him encouragement at a time of adversity. With tiny hand-movements Rattle drew out a very English sound from the Berlin Phil. The playing was gentle and seemed effortless, and yet was totally committed. In depicting the characters’ idiosyncrasies, there was generally a playful feel, but ‘Nimrod’ was given very statesmanlike treatment – a slower tempo than usual, I felt, filling it with reverence and spirituality.

Was it necessary to understand the pictures painted through the music in order to enjoy the performance? Possibly not, although it did enrich the experience. Ideally I could have listened twice over: once for critical appreciation of the composers’ genius, then again to wallow in the sheer beauty of its masterful interpretation.

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