Three enormous ear-splitting tam-tams were employed in Messiaen’s Et Exspecto Resurrectionem Mortuorem, the largest being truly gigantic, maybe 10ft (3m.) in diameter. When we reassembled after the interval to hear the LSO perform Bruckner’s 9th symphony, this massive tam-tam was still centre-stage, at the back lowering over the orchestra. For a moment I was worried that we were about to witness an intervention into Bruckner’s score far exceeding anything Ferdinand Löwe perpetrated in the first printed edition, but the massive instrument remained silent throughout and stood like some monumental glistening sculpture adding an unusual visual dimension to Bruckner’s mighty final symphonic endeavour. Ranged in front of it was a line of 8 double basses facing us, four trombones and the bass tuba completing the row. In front of them were two rows of horns/Wagner tubas, woodwind, with trumpets and timps to the right; in the foreground first violins, a large wedge of cellos, then violas, and second violins on the right. It was a layout that led to great clarity of line and counterpoint, and enabled key moments such as the quiet trumpet and drum repeated note comments in the opening pages to be played perfectly together, and interplay between firsts and seconds to be fully appreciated.

The tremolando at the start was suitably hushed and expectant, and the horn-infested opening arose atmospherically out of the mists. Simon Rattle decided that an accelerando was necessary up to the tutti statement of the octave-drop main theme, as opposed to the ‘ritenuto’ Bruckner calls for, but the ensemble here went somewhat awry and the tutti itself seemed underpowered. You couldn’t wish for any greater clarity in the denser textures of the lyrical second subject, and the third group were presented with deliberate precision and vigour. So far, so good – but nothing quite to write home about. But come the second part of the movement, things changed – perhaps this was a deliberate interpretative decision: to present the exposition with some restraint and then to show the expressive potential of the material in the ‘expanded counterstatement’ of the second half. Particularly shattering was march-like crescendo after the repeated re-statement of the octave drop main theme, leading to one final collapse before the second subject steals in, played here with immense beauty and expressiveness. This was magnificently handled, as was the movement’s coda, its dazzling heaven-storming fanfares both visceral and transcendental.

By contrast, the Scherzo and Trio were somewhat stolid. It was as if Rattle wished to present great architectural blocks, rather as had been so powerfully displayed in the Messiaen beforehand, and there was little of the demonic about the Scherzo, and nor anything spectral about the Trio. The music seemed to serve its purpose as a formal element, an intermezzo, but not much more. But certainly, there was a great clarity of sound, and voices heard that are sometimes not apparent.

The opening phrase of the Adagio was extraordinary: there was a failure of articulation and ensemble, a series of glissandi scooping up and sliding down the phrase to quite ghostly effect, greater security then being supplied by wonderfully forward Wagner tubas, and the horns ushering in the rise to the Parsifal-like ethereal violin and woodwind cadence. I’m sure it was unintentional, as when the moment is repeated later in the movement (bar 77) it was done with perfect ensemble, and articulated without any compromising of that leaping ninth, but in the event it was quite as heart-wrenching as it was unsettling. At the fortissimo where trumpet exclamations shout above the horns powering up and down that ninth, Rattle held his arms out wide and the hall was filled with a blaze of glorious sound, unforgettable – and then the descending chorale, Bruckner’s ‘farewell to life’, seemed to express not only deep, deep sadness, but also pride, as though recognising that something wonderful had been achieved here, the tiny fragmented viola comments particularly telling. There was further great beauty in the second subject, and later on the inexorable rise to the movement’s dissonant climax accomplished without any extraneous histrionics or exaggeration. After the silence the movement starts up again, almost where it began, bar 9, unchanged by the traumatic enormity that has just occurred, signifying perhaps that there is work still to be done that awaits resolution in the Finale. Meanwhile, the tension winds down to that long-held horn, Wagner tuba, and trombone chord, here very beautifully rendered indeed. As interpreted by Rattle, the closing pages seemed not entirely valedictory, the repeated descending motive on the violins more a legato mp song of calm assurance than a hushed, disembodied pp lament.

At times this had the makings of a great performance, often with a greater sense of flexibility and spontaneity than is sometimes the case in performances directed by Simon Rattle, but maybe it still needs a little more time to mature. It will be very interesting indeed to see what Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic make of the symphony with completed finale when they perform it in February 2012.