The Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle came to Paris last weekend for an eclectic program: Mozart’s final three symphonies on Saturday night, and the decadence of Schoenberg, Berg and Stravinsky on Sunday afternoon. For my first meeting with this legendary orchestra, I chose to jump with them into German expressionism and Russian modernism.

Simon Rattle © Mat Henneck EMI
Simon Rattle
© Mat Henneck EMI

Hearing the first notes of Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night was terribly exciting. As it began, I wished I could stop the course of time. What was actually happening? What substance was drifting through the air, creating such a sound? At a mighty pianissimo, the grave, descending figure took us away to a transfigured world, a world where a miraculous string orchestra turns any emotional expressivity into a door to infinity. I may never hear this colourful pianissimo again. I will keep its memory. Something perfect, so far, so high in the air and so deep in the heart.

The night went on. Moonlight stroked the Salle Pleyel, the woman's voice tragically confessing her predicament through the languorous strings led by Rattle’s delicate baton. Oppressive silences broke off the ordeal of her soul, to make the orchestra find its way to redemption. The Berliner Philharmoniker’s mighty strings seemed to express our slightest feelings in a whole transfigured sound that would never been reached again. This transfigured night ended in a soft, free, appeased silence, to an appreciative audience.

Berg’s Three Fragments from Wozzeck were created for the conductor Hermann Scherchen in June 1924, more than a year before the opera was premièred. They present various themes from the piece: after an expressive prelude, the first fragment (I, 3) is composed of a military march, a soft lullaby and a popular dance; in the second one (III, 1) Marie reads the Bible and repents during an introspective prayer; the third fragment (III, 4) begins with a tragic interlude after Wozzeck has drowned himself in the river. A children’s dance ends the piece in a hopeless relinquishment.

Soprano Barbara Hannigan was a superb Marie. The emotional strength of her timbre found a perfect echo in the orchestra, letting her sing her love and her faith, and cry her woe. For we were living Marie’s tragic destiny with and through this gorgeous soprano, the orchestra creating a unique universe beyond Berg’s genius. With great precision, Rattle led the final tragic moto perpetuo until it drowned into the silence.

Only a few months after the Mariinsky Gala at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées for The Rite of Spring’s 100th anniversary (29 May) and Valery Gergiev’s brilliant double performance, I was expecting much from Rattle and the Berliners’ Rite. And this performance was little like the bright, violent, pagan Russian interpretation. Rattle chose to sound deeper, larger, more spiritual, like he did with Berg and Schoenberg; but the style seemed not to fit Stravinsky's masterwork.

Rattle reached an extreme transparency in the orchestra – each voice, each detail was distinctly heard. But this made us lose some of the piece’s thematic identity, under brilliant waves of notes. Despite the extraordinary unity of the musicians, and their clear, smooth sound that perhaps no Rite has reached before, I would have preferred more focus on thematic construction, a more contrasted approach, more savage, even more precise. Rattle’s Rite seemed not to be danceable: I tried in vain to imagine the sacrificial scenes.

Were the musicians and their conductor ready enough for this sudden barbarism after the huge expressivity of the first half of the concert? I was not. But this was an extraordinary performance nonetheless.