Disruptions in operas and concerts are only to be expected at this time of year: illness has meant alterations to personnel in each of the last three events I've attended. In this case, Stella Doufexis's late withdrawal necessitated a major change for the Berlin Philharmonic's concert, with Sibelius's The Swan of Tuonela substituted for Ravel's Shéhérazade. While this gave a little more coherence to a heterogeneous programme, it was a shame to miss out on the colouristic gorgeousness of Ravel's songs.

Simon Rattle © Mat Hennek
Simon Rattle
© Mat Hennek

The Tristan Prelude which opened the concert was delivered with passion, with a luxurious, full-blooded string sound as the music approached the climax. For my taste, some of the preceding ebbs and flows in tempo were over-pushed: I prefer a reading where these are sculpted in terms of a single, inexorable crescendo of intensity. Given how often this is coupled with the so-called “Liebestod”, it was interesting to hear the alternative ending Wagner wrote for stand-alone performances of the Prelude. It contains some Act II material and closes with a transposed version of the operatic ending, though differently orchestrated: for instance, the last chord was for high woodwinds alone.

There was a slight thinning of string personnel for Jörg Widmann's Trauermarsch, but this was made-up for by the increase in the number of percussion players. For this, the world première of this single-movement piano concerto, Yefim Bonfman was the soloist. It began with a single descending semitone (G-flat to F) on the piano, which gradually expanded into a descending scale, more in the vein of Debussy's delicate Des pas sur la neige than Brahms' Piano Concerto no. 2, an alleged influence. The horn-piano dialogue at the beginning of this last-named work was transmuted here into a solo trumpet response to the piano.

The main material was indeed the funeral march promised by the title, with raucous Mahlerian woodwind, and screaming climaxes. Bronfman has a golden, noble tone, and never sounded forced even at the loudest dynamics. This was not a display-orientated piece: while no doubt offering technical challenges to the soloist, the more active parts were frequently subsumed as part of the roiling sound-world of the orchestra. Given the title, one section sounded to me like the soul leaving the body, and the quiet oasis that followed featuring the piano with spot colours from the celeste (I think)/solo violin was among the most effective parts of the whole. This was followed, predictably, by another outburst, which built up to an orgy of noise, before a quiet ending. On a first hearing, this was an interesting rather than instantly gripping work, and not the most grateful for the soloist in terms of display. It ran for 19 minutes, less than the 25 estimated in the programme book.

The revision to the programme made the second half into an all-Sibelius affair. A further connection between the works was available to those who read the note on the Fifth Symphony: Sibelius came up with the noble swinging horn-theme in the third movement after having seen a group of swans in flight (something he described as “one of the greatest experiences of my life”). After the opulence of the orchestra in the first half, there was something almost chaste about the smaller forces needed for Sibelius' works. The Swan of Tuonela, based on Finnish Kalevala legend, features extended writing for the cor anglais, played here by Dominik Wollenwerber, who stood in the body of the orchestra. While his playing was impressive, the real show-stoppers both here and in the Symphony were the strings. In the opening bars, the sound rises from basses and cellos up to multiply divided violins, and the way in which this was accomplished was absolutely seamless. Later, they created a mystical, almost Parsifal-like halo of sound, and the sound died away at the end in a most convincing fashion. 

With his Fifth Symphony, Sibelius achieved the unusual distinction of retreating from the experimental idiom of his Fourth to a more accessible and tuneful sound world, and at the same time not forfeiting critical approbation. The woodwinds were a little under par compared with other concerts I've heard, probably explained by the absence of certain familiar faces among the principals. That said, the brass was impressive, especially in the powerful sections of the third movement, and despite a lack of perfect unanimity in the early tremolo sections of the first movement, the strings were very much on form: the dynamic variety in the pizzicato parts of the second movement was astounding. In the misterioso passages in the final movement, they made sounds quieter than one would have thought humanly possible: it was quite breath-taking. As a whole, this rendition may not have come up to their performances of Brahms 1 and Mahler 6 earlier in this season, but there were still many exquisite things to savour.