Simon Rattle and the musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic kicked off their eight-day residency at Carnegie Hall with vodka instead of champagne. Sandwiching a German violin concerto between two Russian giants, the orchestra, along with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, bedecked the Carnegie Hall Gala with hypothetical dance numbers, tuneful German lyricism, and music inspired by a smallish red peacock, showing that their musicians are indeed the best of the best.

Sir Simon Rattle © Mat Hennek
Sir Simon Rattle
© Mat Hennek

 Back to the hall in which they received their première 73 years ago, Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances do not embody the spirit of Russian ballet from the likes of Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky, but instead offer a haunting retrospective for the last Russian Romantic. Tending more toward Martha Graham than a folksy barynya, the Symphonic Dances were the composer’s final opus. As if limping along like an old dog, dance-like accompaniments begin only to be interrupted by new thematic material quoted tastefully from his own compositional gamut. Rachmaninov placed a Non allegro tempo cap on the first movement, introducing the Berin Philharmonic string players who immediately demonstrated their ability to play the space between the notes by maintaining the momentum through each consecutive staccato. On the advice of master orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett, a remarkable saxophone solo floats above a windband palette in the first dance, played handsomely here by Manfred Preis. In the second dance, the orchestra unhinged itself for the demented waltz, maintaining the persistent, underlying ambiguity. Ending with the same sense of urgency as it began, the final dance quotes the Dies irae before closing on the final notes of Rachmaninov’s musical career.

Representing the mid-19th century, Bruch’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in G minor is a one-hit wonder. Violinists love it, audiences love it, but the remainder of Bruch’s output is generally ignored. Nevertheless, there is no better duo to perform this work than the Berlin Philharmonic, with hawk-like attention and keen reception, and Anne-Sophie Mutter, whose magical fingers always seem to fall in the right place. In an era when violin players will vibrate a 32nd note if possible, Ms Mutter demonstrates how vibrato can be turned on and, more importantly, turned off for heightened musical expression. From the very start of this pinnacle in lyric German Romanticism, Ms Mutter exhibited her command of arched phrasing and fine dynamic detailing, gliding with ease across a cadenza-like plain. Consistently divine from start to finish, Ms Mutter radiated such a presence onstage that Bruch would swoon in his grave. Not only did the audience gaze in a trancelike state, but the orchestra members also observed in mindful contemplation during rests because Ms Mutter can bewitch any listener with the lush sounds of her Stradivarius.

The Berlin Philharmonic closed the program with the final scenes from Stravinsky's Firebird Suite. In contrast to the abstruse dances of Rachmaninov, Stravinsky’s decisive final movements from his ballet jet through a violent “Infernal Dance”, with a frantic D clarinet line by Walter Seyfarth, to an opiate “Berceuse”, played persuasively by principal oboist Jonathan Kelly. In the moments following the peacock’s lullaby, the string players drifted across a line of soft, tremolo-ed intervals; time stops while the world sleeps. Unless a second orchestra was placed offstage in secret, Rattle achieved one of the softest dynamics I have ever experienced. After what seemed like a lifetime, the virtuoso horn solo lifted the hall back to Kastchei’s palace, concluding the piece with full, Berliner sound, consequently prompting the audience to an inevitable standing ovation.

The Berlin Philharmonic is a living organism; the strings undulate like a lung, breathing life into the music, while the winds and percussion allow for taste and smell, conjuring an assortment of flavors and scents. It is undoubtedly one of the best orchestras in the world today.