Of all the celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of Jean Sibelius in 2015, the Berlin Philharmonic’s Barbican residency must rank pretty high, with all seven symphonies in three concerts on successive days. What makes it even more tantalising is that while the Berlin Philharmonic doesn’t have this music coursing through its veins, its Chief Conductor, Sir Simon Rattle, most certainly does – his CBSO cycle, over 25 years ago, was one of his great early successes. There’s no denying that unleashing the Berlin sound on the music of the Finnish master was thrilling, but does turbo-charged Sibelius hit the spot?

Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker © Mark Allan | Barbican
Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker
© Mark Allan | Barbican

The Symphony no. 1 in E minor shares a similar musical language to that of Tchaikovsky. Sibelius heard the Pathétique just a few years before composing his First Symphony and the impassioned strings which pour forth in the finale indicate a certain debt in the Russian composer’s direction. The symphony’s opening also nods towards Tchaikovsky’s Fifth; both start with long clarinet solos and Andreas Ottensamer’s shaping of this forlorn, meandering theme was masterly, shading dynamics down to a morendo ppp before the strings streamed bright sunlight onto the score. The weight and warmth of the Berlin strings was quite overwhelming in its intensity through the performance.

The sheer density of the orchestral sound was astonishing, beautifully blended. It was blessed by woodwind playing to die for, led by Emmanuel Pahud’s flute, tightly focused and strongly projected. That warmth and weight of sound isn’t usually the first thing I’d look for in Sibelius, preferring the cooler clarity more readily associated with Nordic orchestras, but it was mightily persuasive. Rattle coaxed tender playing in the Andante second movement, while the Scherzo was imbued with boisterous fun, timpani hammering out the seven-note motif with relish. I harboured some doubts surrounding Rattle’s handling of the finale, where he indulged in gratuitous pulling around of tempi, albeit to grand romantic effect. Rippling harp, sweeping strings and high octane brass channelled Tchaikovskian ardour gloriously.

Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker © Mark Allan | Barbican
Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker
© Mark Allan | Barbican

“It is as if the Almighty had thrown down the pieces of a mosaic for heaven’s floor and asked me to put them together,” wrote Sibelius about his Second Symphony. The gentle pulsing crotchets in the strings, met by a descending woodwind motif, offer one of the most relaxed, sunny symphonic openings, perhaps reflecting the Italian setting of its composition (Rapallo, 1901). Rattle and the Berliners neatly laid out these different ‘mosaic’ fragments before reassembling them. The equally episodic second movement gained from the granite-like Berlin brass and clinical pizzicatos.

The sense of struggle in the third movement gave way to blistering, ecstatic string playing in the finale. How great to watch an orchestra’s back desks playing with as much fevered passion as its front desks! Again, one sensed Rattle underlining all the tempo changes with a thick red pen, which enhanced the symphony’s fragmentary structure. The brass fully embraced the bombastic theme in the closing pages, although it was not propelled as forcefully by the timpanist as it could have been. Nevertheless, Rattle’s powerhouse reading had great impact to launch an impressive start to this Berlin residency.

****1