As a crucible of ideas the Seventh stands apart from Mahler’s other symphonies. It is overstuffed. None of the rest, not even whoppers like nos. 2, 3 and 8, groan half as heavily under the weight of their own content. The five sections are less a prism than a patchwork, with self-references in the first movement’s Allegro con fuoco (its spiralling climax rides in wheeltracks left by the Third Symphony) and a lurch to Wagner in the Rondo Finale with its tribute to Die Meistersinger.

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Such a protean symphony needs a deft hand on the tiller, and as in his CBSO recording, a quarter of a century ago now, Sir Simon Rattle was just the man to steer it into harbour. The Berliner Philharmoniker led off in ravishing brass colours that punched the air with exalted penetration before softening to an equally glorious restraint. Thereafter, with dynamics that turned on a sixpence and tempo choices to surprise the most seasoned Rattle aficionado, the near-80-minute symphony held together as persuasively as I’ve heard it.

With such vast forces in play, not least a veritable battalion of woodwind, only a great orchestra could make the opening Langsam sound crystalline in the Royal Albert Hall. The BPO never shed its beauty, even at volume. And wherever Mahler posed a problem, Rattle had a solution. He brought warmth to the first Nachtmusik where other conductors might keep things cool, a choice that brought the night alive with mystery. That neatly set up a central Scherzo, complete with some deliciously casual string portamenti, that was dark and fleet. Schattenhaft (“shadowy”) indeed!

Rattle’s response to the second Nachtmusik’s Amoroso marking was to apply a youthful sensuality whose warmth stood in stark contrast to the moods on either side of it. Here, as throughout the symphony, Stefan Dohr’s first horn lent tenderness and style to Mahler’s midnight rhapsody, with the orchestra’s ‘plucked’ section (mandolin, guitar and two harps) adding a squeeze of zest to prickle the sweetness.

Nothing befuddles the Seventh like the leaving of it. Its elusive Finale has a beguiling voice, but it seems to have got caught in a thicket of extraneous material. Rattle simply hared through this hotchpotch, as though the best way to escape the clutches of a thorn bush is to rip yourself away as fast as possible. The sensation of scorching across a Mahlerian landscape at 80 mph left most of the audience in a state of exultant giddiness.

Sir Simon Rattle © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Sir Simon Rattle
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The concert had opened with a compelling account of Éclat by Pierre Boulez, and Rattle’s performance will have made a good few friends for a composer whose name, in the mouths of many, tends to be accompanied by a furrowed brow.

That titular word can mean several things, from the swagger of catwalk glamour to those bits of chocolate in a Maryland cookie. Most commonly, though, éclat means lustre or brilliance, and that is what came through in this account by Rattle and 15 BPO colleagues of Boulez’s fascinating exercise in sonority.

Half the instruments in the ten-minute piece, notably the percussion, are characterised by the way they resonate and release their music into the air, whereas the rest (strings, wind, brass) only sound for the time they are played. Combine the two, as Boulez does, and the textures are fascinating – thrilling, even – although a less echoey acoustic that the RAH would have served the music better. Only the piano has a foot in both camps, and both were apparent in the work’s opening flourish: it began drily but ended with the sustainer pedal working overtime. Thereafter, the fragmentary music burgeoned through to the sustained climax of a fugue-like tutti and an abrupt full stop.