Although the three week Berliner Musikfest is now in its final stages, last night marked the first involvement of the Berlin Philharmonic. A slew of front-rank orchestras had already held court in the Grosser Saal of the Philharmonie, and finally it was the turn of the resident orchestra, recently returned from an overseas tour. For this observer, never having heard them live under Rattle, the question was: could they match the refinement and precision of the Concertgebouw, or the involvement of the Gewandhaus? The matter was in the balance after a first half given over to Schumann’s Symphony no. 1, which left me appreciative but not overwhelmed; however the performance of Brahms’s Symphony no. 1 after the interval was, quite simply, among the greatest orchestral experiences of my life.

Sir Simon Rattle with the Berliner Philharmoniker © Monika Rittershaus
Sir Simon Rattle with the Berliner Philharmoniker
© Monika Rittershaus

A host of factors impinged on the difference in my experiences of the two halves, most obviously the contrasting character of the two works. Schumann’s symphonic ambitions came to life after he had discovered Schubert’s Ninth (the ‘Great’ C major), which he saw as a viable alternative to Beethoven’s daunting output. A wonderful and successful work in its own right, Schumann’s lyrical Spring Symphony does not have the sense of successfully wrestling with the Beethovenian sublime that dominates Brahms’s long-delayed first foray into the symphony.

Presumably as a consequence of this, a decision had been taken to differentiate the two works through the number of players involved. Setting aside small differences in scoring (a double bassoon in the Brahms, an extra trumpet and triangle for the Schumann), on the page the two symphonies are written for similar forces. However, the number of strings employed was far less in the Schumann: a quick headcount gave a layout of 10 first violins, 10 second violins, 8 violas, 6 celli, and 5 double basses, augmented to 16-14-12-8-8 for the Brahms. The effect on the sound was dramatic: in the second half, I finally got to enjoy the streamlined tone for which the Philharmonic string section is famous. In the first half, by contrast, they sounded sonically hemmed in, very homogenous to be sure, but lacking that burnished edge. The homogeneity was reinforced by not having the different string sections in entirely distinct tranches – the back desks of the second violins were wrapped behind the cellos, for instance.

Rattle is undoubtedly one of the most expressive performers on the podium since the days of Carlos Kleiber and Bernstein at least, and his direction of both works involved vivid facial characterisation as well as apposite and varied gestures. He conducted both works without a score. In the Schumann, I was particularly struck by his concern for line: in the second movement, certain details in the main theme were deliberately not made much of, so that the overall direction of the melody was clear. Other special moments were the incredible delicacy of the link to the third movement, and the scherzando trio section in this movement proper, which was a joy. Rattle was not afraid to push the tempo where necessary, especially in the fourth movement. The horn and flute solos were delectable, and the coda had all the excitement one could hope for.

In the tortured opening of Brahms’ First (perhaps symbolically suggestive of all the creative trouble that lay behind the 43-year-old’s first symphony) the string players really leaned into their instruments to augment the sense of strain. After the whispered final resolution at the end of the introduction, the main Allegro was given a truly breathtaking reading, ideally balanced between forward drive and utter clarity. One was particularly struck by the bodily as well as sonic unanimity of the orchestra – at moments such as the retransition back to the main theme, they seemed physically to move as one. In the second movement, the oboe and clarinet solos came through without effort, so well did the strings hold back. The later solos for horn and violin were both excellent, the latter notably extrovert.

In the slightly extended pause before the third movement, Rattle actually stepped down off the podium; by contrast, after the flowing performance of this Un poco Allegretto e grazioso there was virtually no break before the finale. The pizzicato passages in the introduction to the latter were given a single uni-directional accelerando and the Alpenhorn melody was especially memorable, the player slightly raising his bell to augment the tone. Everything here felt just right: from the brief trombone chorale (later triumphantly revisited), to the melody that infamously echoes the Ode to Joy theme, through to the vigorous coda. Brahms’ solution to the symphonic problem is an impressive work even in lesser hands, but it took on a new glory in this magnificent reading.