Last night was my first ever visit to the Berlin Philharmonie, and it couldn't have been more eagerly awaited: if you'd asked me to name the work I most wanted to see here, it would have been Rattle conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker in Mahler 5. But I settled into my seat with slight trepidation: after all that anticipation, what would I write if it wasn't up to standard?

RIAS Kammerchor © Matthias Heyde
RIAS Kammerchor
© Matthias Heyde

Before getting to find out, we were treated to Purcell's Music for the funeral of Queen Mary, a work in which choral numbers, sung by the 36-strong RIAS Kammerchor and accompanied only by organ, are interleaved with slow marches played by the Berliners' brass section and two military drums. It's surprising to see Purcell and Mahler on the same programme, but the Purcell neatly prefigures the somewhat military funeral march of the Mahler's first movement, and Purcell's writing feels very timeless to me: in most other company, it could form the focal point of a concert in itself.

The RIAS Kammerchor sung the Purcell quite beautifully. From the total clarity of their diction and pronunciation, with every word coming through crisply, I would never have guessed that this wasn't an English choir. The glory of Purcell's music is in the interweaving of its contrapuntal phrases: each phrase is a thing of beauty in itself, but the assembled whole is even more, giving life to the words from the bible and the Book of Common Prayer. It demands a lot of a choir: there must be perfect balance between each of the voices as well as a clear individual control of line in each one. Last night's performance gave us exactly that; the setting of Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts was particularly affecting. The military dirge which frames the beginning and end of the work is also a deeply affecting piece; last night, this was slightly less convincing, with trumpet entries not quite in place and the occasional trumpet note held for too long - an element of showboating, perhaps.

There were no such problems in the glorious trumpet solo that opens the Mahler, to be followed by a series of immense tutti from the full forces of the orchestra. From that moment on, I was gripped. The fifth symphony isn't Mahler's longest work, and (particularly by his standards) it doesn't use the largest orchestra. But the amount of material it contains is extremely large. At most points during the symphony, there are several simultaneous phrases from different parts of the orchestra, often making little quotations from music that we've heard earlier on which are moved to a different instrument, transposed or subtly altered. The risk is that you can be rather overpowered by it all and lose your way, so the job of the conductor and orchestra is to keep the listener's sense of direction - or, rather, several different directions - as the work progresses through five movements of very different character. Rattle and the Berliners gave a performance of great lucidity: not only could I hear many more phrases in the music than I can hear on record, but I gained a clear sense of where they fitted with the rest of the music and where it all led.

I'm not going to go through the details of each movement, but here's a thought to give you an idea of the scale of the work. The fourth movement adagietto is a wonderful piece of music in itself, often played standalone and justly famous (musically) for its rich string texture and aching suspended chords and (culturally) for its role in the classic Luchino Visconti film Death in Venice. In its original context, it's merely a short link passage, a "little adagio" between the horn-laden scherzo and the powerful finale.

With all that said, what defines the experience of the coming to the Philharmonie is the quality of the players and the quality of the hall. Listening to this orchestra, the quality of the individual instrumental playing is so high that you feel like you're listening to a collection of soloists. It's not limited to the woodwind players, who can often be picked out: the first two movements of the Mahler depend greatly on the percussion instruments, and I don't think I've ever heard timpani so perfectly balanced and timed to the rest of the orchestra. The effect is that themes are underlined more clearly, and when the orchestra decides to play loudly, it's as clean as if Rattle is simply turning a volume control.

All this is helped by the hall. It's a very strange piece of architecture, with the hall suspended (apparently in mid-air) at the top of its building. Inside, it's rather like a giant cubist eggshell, with a very high ceiling and multiple blocks of seating with different angles. Acoustically, what it means is that you get a level of ambience (it's not an anechoic chamber by a long way) but you hear every note: in both choral and orchestral works, there isn't a trace of mush. Visually, the seats are raked fairly steeply and the orchestra is on multiple levels at the lowest part of the eggshell, so you get a clear view of the players with a rare level of intimacy.

I had higher expectations of this concert than of any I've attended in many years, and they were fulfilled. If you're a lover of orchestral music and you have the chance to go to the Philharmonie, take it.

*****