That the Berliner Philharmoniker is capable of extraordinary precision was evident from the first bars of Helmut Lachenmann’s Tableau, for orchestra. Lachenmann is a composer who goes against reassuring listening patterns and swipes his audience with the unexpected. This ten-minute rack of anxiety, consisting of very short phrases and sustained tones that swell and recede suddenly, requires laser-like accuracy and rapid reflexes. The instruments produce effects that echo fearful breathing and footsteps in the dark and the piece ends in a rustle after a sloping sequence of dizzying fortes. Its quicksand texture and mesh of nerve-jangling impulses made it a fitting prologue to Mahler’s Second Symphony, the “Resurrection”, which ponders whether life has any meaning and answers the question with a thunderously affirmative vision of the Apocalypse.

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

At a sold-out Concertgebouw, Sir Simon Rattle, who first tackled the Second in his teens, conducted it from memory. His rapport with his musicians is such that spare gestures suffice for them to follow his deliberate tempi and underlined rests. With taut arm movements he reined in the power during most of the Allegro maestoso, which Mahler titled “Funeral Rites”. Rather than sampling the monumental Finale, the funeral march was heroic but very human, with resignation in its gait and a surrendering quality in the cor anglais lament. The steep crescendos, however, erupted at full blast; the Berliner players rocketed rather than climbed up to Mahler’s clashing climaxes. With its rich, velvety strings and steel-rimmed brass, the orchestra sustained a patrician sumptuousness and robust forcefulness throughout the work.

Softly controlled, the Ländler at the beginning of the Andante moderato waltzed in from faraway. During this movement, which celebrates the sweetness in the deceased's life, the strings curved the idyllic phrases with a golden legato and dazzled with pinpoint pizzicato. The transition to the Scherzo was immediate. This is where Mahler imagines what it is like to live a senseless life, careening blindly through life’s purposeless episodes. Sir Simon’s rendering of this movement was the stuff of nightmares, his cold command of the unremitting pulse implying an evil genius behind the mechanical confusion. The escalation to the apocalyptic Finale through the fourth and fifth movements was a feat of dramatic pacing, the only caveat being the soloists, who were vocally on the lighter side. In “Urlicht” (Primal Light) mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená had the presence of a wise angel but, in spite of her glamorous timbre and commitment to the text, lacked contralto-like gravitas for this burning declaration of faith. Neither she nor soprano Kate Royal cut through the ensemble in the Resurrection Chorale, but all other elements in the overwhelming last movement were present on a grand scale.

The Netherlands Radio Choir impressed from their first unearthly murmurs to the final sonic cascade. The orchestra outclassed itself, from the gilded horns as the Voice in the Wilderness to Andreas Blau’s almost superhuman flute solo–most appropriate for the nightingale that is the Bird of Death. Placing the offstage band at opposite ends of the Concertgebouw created a galvanising triangulation of sound in the summons to the Last Judgment, and the fright fanfare tearing the air to shreds was truly staggering. Paralysingly magnificent.