In an interview shown before this Berlin Philharmonic live stream, Sir Simon Rattle explained how every musical event these days is subject to change. What was originally planned as a performance of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius gradually got scaled down, and down, until the vocal element was reduced to a solo tenor in Britten’s Serenade, sandwiched in the programme between two sets of orchestral variations. But few can have felt short-changed by the result, and even a last-minute substitution of tenor soloist as a consequence of Germany’s latest Covid border controls did nothing to compromise the evening.

Andrew Staples
© Monika Rittershaus

It’s good to see that, thanks to regular PCR testing, the orchestra is able to play largely up to strength again and seated at normal distance, which meant that Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings could be played with a full complement of the latter – and what a luxury it was to hear this music in the hands of such a team, biting in the Dirge, dreamily plush in the Sonnet. As tenor soloist, Andrew Staples brought both agility and composure, a masterclass in showing how intensity of emotion and feeling can be expressed without the slightest hint of histrionics. His Dirge was particularly compelling in this respect and the resignation of Cotton’s Pastoral and urgency of Jonson’s Hymn were just as absorbingly presented. The orchestra’s principal horn, Stefan Dohr, was every bit Staples’s equal – it was fascinating to watch their visual interplay, especially in the interlocking phrases of Pastoral. Dohr played the Prologue and Epilogue on a natural horn, rather than the valved modern instrument he used for the rest of the piece, arguing that it gives a more unhindered rendering of the natural harmonics that Britten calls for, and it certainly seemed to add a sense of immediacy to the tone, even in the offstage finale.

Stefan Dohr, Andrew Staples and the Berlin Philharmonic
© Monika Rittershaus

Rattle, ever ingenious in his concert programming, framed the Serenade with two works that have probably never met before but which seem natural bedfellows: Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and Ginastera’s Variaciones concertantes of 1953, the latter, in the conductor’s words, perhaps a “young person’s guide to the chamber orchestra”. The Argentinian composer gives the sections and soloists of his small orchestra a variation or interlude each (oboe and bassoon, and trumpet and trombone share theirs), beginning with his own theme – more a collection of motifs, really – presented by solo cello over simple harp arpeggios. Sadly, a local internet outage of a few minutes meant I missed the viola solo and sections of the woodwind variations that surround it, but what I did manage to hear was always poised, characterful and a joy to hear.

Sir Simon Rattle
© Monika Rittershaus

Despite some virtuoso writing in places (the clarinettist draws the short straw there), the Ginastera is a largely contemplative piece, until the driving rhythms of the full-orchestral finale bring the work to a rousing conclusion. Perhaps as much a result of greater familiarity, the Britten itself came across as the more concise and creative set of variations (maybe Purcell’s theme is just that bit more memorable), one that truly puts its players through their paces, spectacularly realised by this orchestra and conductor.

This concert marked the retirement of the Berlin Philharmonic’s leader (one of three ‘first concertmasters’) Daniel Stabrawa, veteran of four chief conductors in his 38 years with the orchestra (35 as leader), and at the end of the presentation he was given a tearful send-off by the orchestra and even an encomium from its resident poet, Klaus Wallendorf.

This performance was reviewed from the Digital Concert Hall live video stream