Sir Simon Rattle has every reason to feel at home in Symphony Hall, in front of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. This is the hall that he was instrumental in bringing to the city and the orchestra he brought to international repute whilst forging his own path to conducting greatness, after all. A special sense of occasion therefore permeated the hall for this concert, heightened by the inescapable fact that this was the chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker returning to Birmingham to give his services for free with all proceeds from the concert going to the vital CBSO Benevolent Fund.

Peter Donohoe © Sussie Ahlburg
Peter Donohoe
© Sussie Ahlburg

Also providing his services gratis was pianist, Peter Donohoe, the soloist for Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in D minor. The partnership of Donohoe and Rattle goes way back and the recorded catalogue is replete with fine examples of their collaborations together. Such friendship and familiarity made for a totally unified vision of this work with Rattle an exquisite accompanist, visibly alert to every moment of nuance or rubato that Donohoe incorporated into his interpretation. That said, his was not a self-indulgent reading of Rachmaninov’s enduringly popular piece but a loving and deeply felt one.

The first movement was notable for its restraint, in fact. The full power of both soloist and orchestra was being reserved for the peak of the development. Rattle carefully balanced the orchestra to ensure that Donohoe could be heard even at this, the stormiest moment of the piece. The ensuing cadenza impressively maintained the tension in what can be a meandering movement in other hands, only occasionally lacking the last degree of clarity and precision. Wind soloists excelled here, as throughout, in magical duets with the soloist.

The second movement Adagio revealed the extent to which Rattle had transformed the sound of the orchestra for this concert. The string sound was sumptuous and the conductor never ceased to coax yet more depth of tone from the players. Dark clouds were cast by an impressive viola section from which Donohoe emerged, in complete command of the movement, soulful without being overly sentimental. The eruption into the finale was as exciting as it ought to be and Rattle, barely needing to make reference to the score, used deftly concise movements in order to marshal his orchestral forces in step with the soloist. Donohoe conjured delightfully feather-light moments and was matched by some fantastic pianissimo playing in the orchestra. There was a palpable crackle of energy in the orchestral response as the concluding march gathered pace and the smiles of the players spoke volumes: this was a memorable performance.

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

As the second half of the concert was about to begin I noticed the present music director of the CBSO, Andris Nelsons, sitting in the audience. I cannot imagine what must have been going through his mind as Rattle came back on stage to conduct ‘his’ orchestra, on glorious form, in a stupendous rendition of Brahms’ Symphony no. 1 in C minor. This was an orchestral sound fully informed by Rattle’s experience with the Berliners and one that would have been unthinkable even at the end of his tenure with the Birmingham orchestra. The sound was built from the bass upwards. Nowhere was this more in evidence than in the spacious, pulsating opening with double basses and contrabassoon audible for a change above the timpani strokes. There were to be no revelations in this reading of Brahms’ slow-cooked masterpiece – this was very much a traditional account – but the combination of the rich sound and Rattle’s trademark attention to detail meant that every component of the composer’s magnificent architecture was illuminated. The tension throughout the taut first movement allegro never sagged.

A master of this hall, Rattle barely glanced at the horns and brass, knowing that they need little encouragement to be heard. Throughout, the conductor’s attention was always galvanising the string sound. The second movement was a major beneficiary of this approach, again with small details like the hand-stopped horn note at the start all of a piece with Rattle in charge. The third movement was the dreamy interlude it should be. Brahms turned the late Classical notion of a scherzo and trio on its head in this symphony: the central section here becoming frenzied and exciting in comparison with the outer sections. Rattle continued straight into the final movement without pause. He and the orchestra built up the psychodrama effectively until the first thunderclap moment heralds the glorious horn melody, played here by Katy Woolley (Principal Horn of The Philharmonia). The movement became a riot of symphonic detail in Rattle’s hands before shockingly collapsing at the second thunderclap as Brahms commands. The coda was taken at an exciting but dignified gallop, with the triumphant brass chorale mercifully broadened only slightly for effect before a rapturous finish.