In 1938, Theodor Adorno wrote the influential and much-quoted sentence that “If Sibelius is good, this invalidates the standards of musical quality that have persisted from Bach to Schoenberg”. Having heard Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker play Sibelius’ last three symphonies at the Barbican last night, I hope that Adorno is turning in his grave.

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

If you reverse Adorno's intent, however, that sentence has an underlying truth: I can’t think of any other composer whose music sounds anything like these symphonies. The tonal colours, the harmonic progressions, the variations in tempi are all distinctive and enthralling: rather than showing “progress” from Bach to Schoenberg, this is music that strikes out in a direction all of its own. The role of the strings struck me in particular, often providing thick textural background with many different bowing techniques, while the fragments of melody are given to the various wind instruments.

The emotional effects can be immense. Towards the end of the first movement of the Fifth Symphony, there are giant climaxes like the breaking of huge waves; you are overwhelmed by the sound of strings washing over a solid base of brass and timpani. But all this power seems to come out of nowhere – only a minute or two before, the music has been relatively calm and all that power has crept up on you by stealth.

Rattle and the Berlin Phil were certainly able to make the most of those moments of power and the build-ups that precede them. Their famously lustrous string sound was well in evidence, the brass powerful and deep of timbre, the woodwind clear with flute and piccolo particularly brilliant above the dark colours of the rest of the orchestra. The middle of the first movement was lit by a memorably lovely bassoon solo, the last movement was marked by some delicious phrases on cor anglais. The last movement of the Fifth contains one of Sibelius’s most beautiful melodies, the so-called “Swan call”. The rhythmic variation was a thing to marvel at, swaying gently away from the main 2/4 beat – giving a slightly syncopated effect that a jazz band would have been proud of.

The performance wasn’t technically perfect by any means, with a horn note at the very beginning which didn’t come out right and a number of places where a wind entry seemed to hesitate a fraction before coming fully in line with the rest of the orchestra. These slips were surprising, although they didn’t do much to damage my overall enjoyment.

Even if you haven’t listened to one of the interviews that Rattle has given about these symphonies, watching him on the podium makes you realise quite how well he knows every note. In the Sixth and Seventh, however, I sometimes felt that the detailed knowledge came at the expense of the overall arc. With some notable exceptions, much of the Sixth is less heroic and more good-natured than the Fifth, containing a wealth of instrumental colour – nature in all its variety, if you will. The orchestra showed admirable lightness of touch in its execution, and I spent most of the symphony enjoying individual details of the playing, appreciating the combination of beauty and underlying threat – but without necessarily feeling a sense of where it was all going. Most striking is the way that rhythms, choice of instruments and dynamics are constantly in motion, usually at the same time, to create different effects.

Rattle believes that the Sixth and Seventh are cut from the same material and should be played together without a break; I’m not so sure: I think I needed a break in order to take in the complex, interwoven nature of the Seventh. But the unique ending of the Seventh was played superbly, the poignancy of the final chords – major, yet unspeakably sad – following on from the  tremolando strings and portentous brass which precede them.