After Simon Rattle blazed into the Philharmonie last week with big hits like Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, and (somewhat less of a big hit) Lutosławski’s Second Symphony, Alan Gilbert, normally to be found on a podium in front of the New York Philharmonic, returned with the same band on Thursday to play lesser-known pieces in the repertoire: Janáček’s violin concerto, subtitled “The Wandering of a Little Soul”, which the composer had abandoned and pillaged for material until a reconstructed version was premièred in 1988; Bartók’s ballet suite from The Wooden Prince, earlier and less-played than The Miraculous Mandarin; and Lutosławski’s Fourth Symphony.

Berliner Philharmoniker © Monika Rittershaus
Berliner Philharmoniker
© Monika Rittershaus

But the hall was no less enthusiastic. I cannot say whether it is the home-field advantage, but the Berliner Philharmoniker has been the only orchestra to receive applause after the musicians have begun to pack up and leave the stage, after the curtain calls have ended, and when the hall is already half-empty – as if some people hoped for a last-minute conjuring, or were not yet empty of thanks. And this has happened on both programs, for both conductors.

It could be the music, which was, as always in this festival, both challenging and rewarding. Tracing Lutosławski’s symphonies across the cycle, I am convinced again and again of his place as one of the foremost orchestrators in history. If you know the symphony, you’ll know a moment near the end when an orchestral forte abruptly stops, revealing the hum of... what is it? It sounds like a hollow rattle, almost mechanical, vibrating almost below audibility. I looked to the percussion, but their hands were still; then to the winds. And then I saw it: a single violist, playing a tremolo ever so softly, just against or underneath the bridge. Then the xylophone began playing its own repeated note, and these two soft sounds floated together in the hall. How do you know to put these two not-at-all obvious sounds together, the way a chef might, say, wake up one morning and decide to combine oysters and caviar? His orchestration is full of such small astonishments.

Bartók’s music for The Wooden Prince, on the other hand, relies on time-tested tropes. The opening, which expands from a low tone through its upper harmonics, reminds us how important was Wagner’s re-imagination of the music of creation, which had not been updated since Haydn. Bartók’s Rheingold is not the confident major swell of Wagner, however, but already wild, already a little furtive, already messy and living before the work of creation is complete.

The only piece that did not convince me this night was Janáček’s violin concerto, played by Thomas Zehetmair with an often brutal bow-stroke that seemed to bully the sound instead of letting it ring. It is obvious on a handful of occasions that he can produce a superb sound on the instrument; I am not sure how much of the responsibility should be placed on his approach to the piece, or on the piece itself, or perhaps on its preparation. The work does not, it is true, make things easy for the soloist, often giving the violin a high, dynamic line that shoulders its way forward over a low bass moan in the orchestra, making issues of tuning and synchronization especially difficult. It is possible to make this piece work, but on this night I simply found it hard to listen to.

Credit, however, must be given to these performers, and to the festival, for taking on these demanding works, often featuring on a single night the kind of adventurous material one might expect from a month’s programming at the local orchestra. It would be churlish not to take a near-miss at its worth – that is, gratefully.