Simon Rattle returned to Birmingham's Symphony Hall, a construction of his own initiation and the home of his successes with the CBSO, to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in a concert as part of the hall's 21st birthday celebrations. He arrived on stage to the kind of reception usually reserved for the end of a concert and masterfully led a rich and intriguing programme of Brahms, Webern and Schumann.

Simon Rattle © Mat Hennek EMI Classics
Simon Rattle
© Mat Hennek EMI Classics

Two third symphonies formed the bulk of the programme. The first was that of Johannes Brahms, written in 1882-3 when the composer found himself, famously, 'Frei aber froh': free (single), but happy. This motto forms the basis for the principal theme of the first movement, a descending F-A-F, although interestingly the same motif appears almost identically in the opening movement of Schumann's third symphony from some thirty years earlier. Rattle's account was superbly constructed, balancing close attention to detail (not once did a phrase seem ignored in phrasing or colour) and sound architecture. He was free with rubato, pushing ahead particularly in the tumultuous moments of the symphony, but refrained from overindulgence in the more reflective passages. The third movement's horn solo, for instance, was given less freedom than it often takes, making it seem less like the emotional heart of the movement, beautifully played though it was.

For the most part, this was a beautifully rich and warm performance, free and happy. The biggest aid to this end was a wonderful string section, particularly its cellos. They worked especially well with the clarinet in the Andante, unhurried and with a serene pastoral feel. For all the richness of the strings, though, there were moments of delightful, chamber-music style transparency and lightness in the playing, making for a fairly humble, wandering pair of inner movements. The finale was stormy and driving, with the many syncopated rhythms passed through the strings with fine coordination and purpose. Rattle grew increasingly animated in the ascent to the triumphant, brassy climax, and the subsequent rising and falling horn triplet figure was substantially bolder than at its first playing. Both appearances are marked at the same forte dynamic, but Rattle's unusual highlighting of the second gave an obvious sense of direction to the movement, and is a simple demonstration of the great musicality on show here. The coda, slow and deliberate, brought the symphony to a beautifully tranquil close.

Anton Webern's Six Orchestral Pieces suite was written just 26 years after Brahms' third symphony, but its large orchestra and expressionist style are a world away from the Romanticism of Brahms. The music was written as a reflection on the funeral of the composer's mother, and perhaps to this end features much bleak dissonance and evocative percussion. An almighty set of tubular bells was employed, playing soft chords through much of the suite with their player perched high above the orchestra. The orchestral playing was deeply emotive, from the wave-like string figures of the first movement to the impassioned tuttis later on. The brass showed supreme control in their pianissimo chords, underpinning a soft and again unhurried performance which faded to an eerie disquiet. One might have worried that such a stark departure from the music of Brahms and Schumann would be incongruous in the programme, but rather it was a very well considered inclusion which added substantially to the evening.

Robert Schumann's Rhenish symphony, third in publication but final in composition, is primarily a product of the Romantic era, but with frequent backward glances in its moments of crisp, Classical-style scoring. Its five movements were inspired by a visit to Cologne and the Rhine, though there is poignancy in this: slowly losing his mind, the composer attempted suicide by throwing himself into the river in 1854. The Rhenish, though, shows no signs of such strife. Rattle charged the grand first movement boldly and briskly, backed by some vigorous horn playing. The ‘Vienna horns’ used by this orchestra are reputably better suited to legato playing than conventional instruments and the section were in fine form this evening, warm and spacious in the first two movements and powering towards the symphony’s boisterous conclusion later on.

Like the Brahms, tonight’s performance benefited from a string section capable of glowing warmth and crisp transparency, which made for a light, minuettish feel to parts of the second movement. By contrast, the serenity of the second and austere reverence of the third (a nod to the city’s great cathedral) were both deeply atmospheric. Comment is occasionally made on the apparent sloppiness of the Vienna Philharmonic in coordination, but this was rarely evident this evening, and the odd moment was more than compensated for by the supreme musicality on display.

This concert, to be repeated tomorrow in the less sympathetic acoustic of London’s Barbican, was a superb display of musicianship above all else, and Rattle is still clearly much loved in Birmingham.

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