The Berliner Philharmoniker may be the world’s business-savviest orchestra. From the handsome program booklets printed on thick, color-rich stock (3€ instead of the customary 2€), to the Sony-sponsored Digital Concert Hall (where one can buy “tickets” to access past and present BP videos), even down to the gold trim on my ticket, this orchestra amply demonstrates its awareness of its reputation as one of the best orchestras in the world. But who cares? The reputation is more than justified.

Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic © Monika Rittershaus
Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic
© Monika Rittershaus

It is hardly a surprise that the Berliner Philharmoniker sounds the most comfortable in the Philharmonie’s signature hall of all the orchestras I have heard to date. They know exactly how to balance a forte to create punch in the hall without overwhelming it, and naturally they exploit the soft ranges too. The individual sections are, of course, simply amazing. I treasured the moments in Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Janáček’s explosive Glagolitic Mass when an instrument group had the chance to play on its own, simply so I could admire the consistency, clarity, and directness of the sound. It is rare to find an orchestra whose sections speak in such perfect synchronization and yet with such freedom, tossing out phrases instead of working to line them up.

Much of this surely has to do with Simon Rattle, who, for the most part, doesn’t feel the need to babysit these musicians through every phrase. This is also true for Lutosławski’s Second Symphony, but for another reason: written in the early 60s, the piece belongs to the composer’s explorations of controlled aleatoricism as a technique for unfolding a work. The various parts are written out, but are only occasionally synchronized; hence the work unfolds on a rather long leash, coming together in moments, diffusing itself in others. Texturally, the symphony often finds a kind of conversational hum, and the feeling is a little like being at a party were all the guests happen to be musical instruments.

The orchestra was joined in the Mahler song cycle by the baritone Christian Gerhaher. There is something of the Mahlerian hero in Gerhaher: he is slightly diminutive onstage, his persona pensive and intellectual. His approach to the cycle is dreamy rather than troubled, and he maintains a sense of lightness in his voice through every range. Rattle’s Philharmoniker was a fabulous accompanist, too: each number had a rhythmic arch, a sense of start and finish, that is rare to hear in an ensemble this size.

The night ended with the rafter-shaking Glagolitic Mass, which is so canny in the way it introduces and uses the choir and each of the four soloists, choosing moments when the sudden appearance of a new vocal texture would be most surprising and welcome. The organ solo, of course, always brings the house down. But the Berliner Philharmoniker had already loosened the foundations.