The combination of Sir Simon Rattle, Elīna Garanča and the Berliner Philharmoniker could never be anything less than a class act. The capacious 2,500-seat Baden-Baden Festspielhaus was a similarly immodest setting.

Sir Simon Rattle © Johann Sebastian Hanel
Sir Simon Rattle
© Johann Sebastian Hanel

A mixed-bag programme of Richard Strauss, Berg, Ravel and Stravinsky was very much “une sélection à la Rattle” with orchestral showpieces bookending some superb singing by the celebrated Latvian mezzo. It was also a programme of relatively youthful works – all were written before the composers had reached 30 and Richard Strauss was only 24 when he penned his spectacular Don Juan. The exuberance of youth is evident in Strauss’ musical portrayal of the libidinous libertine, and at least in terms of orchestral volubility, the musicians’ exuberance was as rampant as the eponymous hero’s hormones. Marked fortissimo allegro molto con brio, the opening bars instantly attested to the orchestra’s peerless reputation. The ascending soaring strings echoed by blasting brass and crashing cymbals displayed an orgasmic potency similar to Der Rosenkavalier 23 years later. The tranquillo violin solo played by concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley was Straussian lyricism at its most seductive and recapitulation of the principal theme revived the euphoric pulse. The wistful cor anglais solo was sensitive without being saccharine. By the tone poem’s gentle conclusion, every section of the orchestra, including the pixie-ish glockenspiel, had more than proved its exceptional virtuosity.

Alban Berg’s Sieben frühe Lieder reveal not only the influence of his teacher Arnold Schoenberg but also hints of Strauss, Mahler and even Debussy, especially in Nacht. The essential Einsamkeit (lonesomeness) of the assembled poems seems textually better served by a more mellifluous mezzo sound despite Berg’s later transcription for higher voice. In this sense, Elīna Garanča’s chocolate velvet timbre was ideal even if her narrative involvement was occasionally slightly distant. The long phrases in Rilke’s Traumgekrönt and Hauptmann’s Nacht displayed flawless breath control with an impeccable pianissimo mezzvoce on “ein Hauch vom fernen Hain”. “Trinke Seele! Trinke Einsamkeit!” had poignant word-colouring with a nuanced crescendo-diminuendo. The higher tessitura in Die Nachtigall showed Garanča’s solid top with some soaring G and A naturals. The Berliners provided sensitive accompaniment with an impressive palette of orchestral colours, especially in winds and strings.

Garanča has a number of French roles in her operatic repertoire but not much by Ravel, which is unsurprising as he only completed two operas. The glamourous Latvian’s excellent French diction and round vowels made her ideal for the Shéhérazade song cycle. From the first pianissimo articulation of Asie it was clear that, like Régine Crespin, Garanča could have held any number of sultans, sheiks or satraps in endless suspense. The dusty key signature of E flat minor portends mystery if not allure and the extended vocal line traversing high B flat to low C sharp displayed the mezzo’s impressive range. In La Flûte enchantée Garanča’s limpid timbre was ably echoed by a wistful flute obbligato. The seductive sexual ambiguity of L’Indifférent was wonderfully purred in “Tes yeux sont doux comme ceux d’une fille”. “Mais non, tu passes” was regret par excellence. Ravel was a master orchestrator which meant that there was plenty of instrumental virtuosity for the gifted Berliners to contribute.

The concert concluded with a punchy performance of Stravinsky’s Petrushka with some outstanding wind, brass and percussion playing. Contrabassoon burped along in the vivace “Shrovetide Fair” section, piano and xylophone added zing and tamtam and tuba gave exotic shadings. Despair in Petrushka’s cell was admirably portrayed by bassoon, flute and cor anglais over some pristine piano playing. Trumpets were dazzling in the Ballerina waltz and there was biting string marcati in the Shrovetide impetuoso passage and Coachmen’s dance. The oboe melody taken up by horns and strings in the evening Shrovetide Fair music was lithe and lively. 

Conducting without a score, Rattle seemed to relish being maestro marionetteer in a game of musical “Simon Says” but the Berliner Phiharmoniker were anything but mindless puppets. Bravos all round.