Schubert and Richard Strauss are perhaps not natural bedfellows, and that felt especially so in this Berliner Philharmoniker concert. In the second half, Strauss’ Eine Alpensinfonie loomed impressively: a work that exploits every aspect of a vast orchestra. In the first half, though, we had orchestral versions of Schubert songs, in which the players rather too often seemed sheepishly to have to take the part of the piano. Even in Berlioz’s far from sheepish version of Erlkönig, it’s impossible not to miss the exciting clatter of a pianist galloping along in strenuous triplets.

Gerald Finley and the Berliner Philharmoniker © Stephan Rabold
Gerald Finley and the Berliner Philharmoniker
© Stephan Rabold

There is an additional challenge, too, for the singer, who has to strike a balance between the more intimate interpretative requirements of the original and the larger-scale projection needed in the new context. Here Gerald Finley was not wholly successful. The Canadian’s eloquence and sensitivity were never in doubt, but his soft-grained bass-baritone struggled to assert itself against Max Reger’s somewhat spongy orchestration of Prometheus, or in Brahms’ rollocking take on An Schwager Kronos, tautly controlled by conductor Daniel Harding

Finley was more persuasive in Brahms’ take on Memnon and Reger’s An die Musik, where, despite rather too much redundant meandering counterpoint, there was an opportunity for something more intimate, as well as some loving playing from the woodwind. Nevertheless it was a relief in many ways to get on to the ten minutes from Schubert’s unfinished oratorio Lazarus, where finally the orchestra was allowed to be itself, with some especially fine woodwind solos in the introduction. Finley rose to the semi-dramatic occasion impressively, too. But the ultimate highlight was the encore: a rapt, entrancing performance of Anton Webern’s featherlight orchestration of Du bist die Ruh.

The second half brought us into a different world completely, a vast mass of musicians filling the Philharmonie stage to bursting point. Strauss’ final tone poem – and the longest single movement of purely orchestral music he produced – still struggles against charges of bombast and extravagance. But it has a long, illustrious history with this orchestra, not least as a speciality of Herbert von Karajan. Harding is one of a group of conductors today who conducts it with a certain regularity and has a complete control over its 50-minute span, here marshalling the elite forces of the Philharmoniker with cool head and a broad overview of the work’s awe-inspiring vistas.

Daniel Harding conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker in <i>Eine Alpensinfonie</i> © Stephan Rabold
Daniel Harding conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker in Eine Alpensinfonie
© Stephan Rabold

The orchestra’s characteristically fierce and uncompromising virtuosity, and the sonic clarity of the Philharmonie, made the score bristle and glisten thrillingly. The climaxes, expertly built-up by Harding, had a bracing, high-altitude brilliance to them – especially that on reaching the summit – the clarity of the sound allowing for plenty of details to come through. The Storm was earth-shattering, the calm before punctured by superbly vivid interjections; Gefarhvolle Augenblicke had me on the edge of my seat. There were plenty of outstanding solo contributions, as one would expect: from Stefan Dohr, leading the magnificent horns (including the full off-stage complement going a-hunting); from Dominik Wollenweber, supremely expressive in the many melancholy cor anglais solos; from oboist Jonathan Kelly, almost choking with the emotion of his solo surveying the view from the summit. 

With this work, though, it’s the final 20 minutes that are perhaps the most important. Here Strauss shifts from descriptiveness of nature into something more richly psychological, probing Nietzschean questions about man and nature (and the artist’s role within that scheme) with music that simultaneously plumbs new depths and reaches a higher plane. Here, for all its brilliance, the performance fell slightly short, with Harding not quite managing to conjure up the warmth, the richness and mingled longing and satisfaction that some manage. But there was little arguing with the impressiveness of what had come before. 

****1