Prom 63: Rattle Successfully Takes Berlin Phil out of their Comfort Zone

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ligeti, Wagner, Sibelius, Debussy, Ravel: Berlin Philharmonic / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 30.8.12 (GDn)

Prom 63 Credit BBC Chris Christodoulou

Ligeti: Atmosphères,
Wagner: Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin
Sibelius: Symphony No.4
Debussy: Jeux
Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe Suite No.2

The Berlin Philharmonic were on fire this evening. Simon Rattle put an eclectic programme of music in front of them that repeatedly took them a long way outside their comfort zone, but they rose to its many challenges magnificently. The orchestra didn’t quite manage to maintain that white hot intensity for the whole concert, but even at its weakest points, it never dropped below world-class.

I have to confess a reservation about Rattle’s programming of avant garde music with the Berlin Phil. The orchestra’s famous chocolaty string sound adds little to Messiaen, for example, so why bother performing that, or this evening’s Ligeti, with an orchestra whose strengths lie elsewhere? I was wrong, very wrong. As the first, incandescent sounds of Atmosphères reached us from the far side of the cavernous Albert Hall, it was immediately clear that this was going to be an extraordinary performance.

The dreadful acoustic of the Albert Hall defeats most orchestras, but even this impediment has no serious effect on the Berlin Philharmonic. Ligeti opens his work with an inscrutable pianissimo cluster in the upper woodwinds, and the warm glow that the players gave this sound filled the hall, even at their minuscule dynamic. The rest of the work was just as absorbing and, yes, that chocolaty string sound turned out to be absolutely ideal. The performance was distinctive, but always true to the spirit of the work. It gave the lie to the often stated view that avant garde music should only be performed and never interpreted.

Rattle segued Atmosphères directly into the Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin. If that is the justification required to perform this Modernist classic, then so be it, but I don’t think either work really benefited. The idea seemed to be a transition from chaos to order, or from darkness to light. Wagner suffered more than Ligeti from this imposed narrative, as Rattle was obliged to remove any traces of complexity or darkness from the Prelude in order to create the required contrast. It was still a spellbinding performance though, and a tour de force from every section of the orchestra.

A well-connected source told me before the concert that Rattle had had difficulties getting the orchestra to consent to playing a Sibelius symphony. Apparently they haven’t touched this repertoire since the Karajan days, and they were very reluctant to go back to it. That tension was apparent in the performance, with the orchestra often struggling to transmit the enthusiasm that was clearly reaching them from the podium. But Sibelius’ Fourth doesn’t really play to their strengths. The composer strenuously avoids the large tutti textures that are the orchestra’s stock in trade, and replaces them with small ensembles that require a more astringent and contained sound. But the performance got better as it went on, and the third movement largo was the highlight. There was passion a-plenty here, and the distinctive Berlin sound finally got a chance to contribute to the emotive impact.

The first piece after the interval demonstrated that it was not the radicalism of Sibelius’ textures per se that had foxed the players beforehand. Debussy’s Jeux is just as unusual in its deployment of the orchestra, perhaps more so. But this performance was ideal, and marked a glorious return to those glowing, luminous sounds that had made the Ligeti so special. There is usually a distinct sense of groundedness to the Berlin Phil string sound, which is totally at odds with the floating, filigree textures that Debussy calls for throughout this score. But somehow the orchestra managed to do both, creating a real depth of sound in the string textures, but without ever tying them down to the ground.

And then came the real crowning triumph of the evening, the Second Suite from Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe in a performance that brought together all the best qualities of the playing throughout the evening. Rattle was brave enough to let the flutes really stand out at the start, and the confidence and projection that they gave to the texture carried through the whole orchestra’s performance right until the end of the work. And what ravishing climaxes, filling the whole hall with glorious, turbulent sensuous expression. The audience went absolutely wild afterwards. Who can blame them?

Gavin Dixon