Tonight's concert ended a series of musical droughts in Milan. Bruckner 7 had not been heard in the city for a period of ten years. Nor had the Berliner Philharmoniker, who made their last visit under Rattle after just a handful of appearances over the previous few decades. Perhaps most significantly, the concert launched La Scala's much anticipated International Orchestras Festival – a celebratory series for Milan's Expo world fair, which had received its grand opening amidst protests and riots the previous day. Billed as one of the most significant music events in Italy this year, the series draws the world's best orchestras to the opera house, including the Vienna Philharmonic, the Budapest Festival Orchestra and the Cleveland Orchestra to name a few.

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

What will you take from your time at the Berliner Philharmoniker to your next destination, the London Symphony Orchestra, Rattle was asked by a national paper in the run up to tonight's event. They're two different beasts, he replied - "you can't turn a pinot noir into a Châteauneuf du Pape". Tonight's programme of Janáček's Sinfonietta and Bruckner's Symphony no. 7 demonstrated the orchestra's supreme versatility. We were left in no doubt that they are a bottle of the highest quality. 

The Janáček, with its Czech nationalistic optimism, launched the Expo festivities in style. Rattle highlighted the work's episodic nature to dish up a vivd, transmogrifying canvas, and there was a wealth of colour on show, from shimmering waves in the opening brass fanfares to piercing gusts from flutes (a section that players complained was unplayable at the work's première) to rich, clotted strings in an overgrown forest for the third movement's depiction of a Brno monastery. Intensity of listening was always in evidence: redundant violins in the fifth movement looked on wide-eyed as the winds rustled up a storm; when they consequently joined the party, they had already hit the ground running. Even more thrilling was the sight of seven trumpeters marching to their extended stands, a flash from cymbals unleashing a billow of brass in a moment to die for.  

If the Janáček was a full-bodied wine, it proved perfect for bringing out the richer flavours of our main course of Bruckner, which had more iridescent forwards momentum than brooding introspection in this interpretation. The opening of the Allegro moderato flared up into blazing horns and then died to a daring pianissimo, providing the blueprint for an entire movement where wave after wave radiated from a morphing whole. Rattle focused on line, leaving the orchestra to take care of the detail. Arm outstretched, fingers bristling, he dug out roving lines, ushering the energy between the orchestral sections with fluidity. There were no noticeable jilts between the thematic seams, and the various musical mosaics fit together into a well-integrated design. 

In and amongst the wide aural panoramas, there was a wealth of detail for the ear to marvel. The brooding first theme tapered with a decrescendo and rallentando, and the emergent arching theme glided with newfound airiness. When the first theme returned in its final guise with rising sextuplets and roving harmonies, the air became electrically charged with a sense of the unknown; the blazing C major climax that followed was breathtaking both aurally and visually, Rattle poised almost motionless at the centre of an all-moving orchestral machine that seemed to emit plumes of steam. Bruckner purportedly wrote this movement as a dedication to the dying Wagner. The dirge from Wagner tubas that closed the movement had never felt more like an agonised swan song to Bruckner's idol. 

This was not an entirely pristine performance. Slips and split notes smudged a bombastic reading of the Scherzo, and having given so much earlier on, signs of wear and tear began to show in the Finale. Regardless, we edged our way towards an ultimate climax that was even more thrilling for the sense of toil. Sheer joy beamed forth when we reached the radiant apex – a pair of desk partners exchanged broad grins and a lone cellist savoured the moment with closed eyes. One violinist could be seen proudly gazing at the scene around him.

Violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter recalls a performance of Bruckner's Seventh Symphony from the BPO and Herbert von Karajan that became so intense in the Adagio that she had to leave the hall. The orchestra's repertoire has been broadened by incumbent Sir Simon Rattle, though the orchestra evidently retains the resources to produce a devastating performance of that particular piece. There was never any question of us leaving our seats, or course. Rather, we savoured every last moment of their playing, willing the musical magic to never end.

*****