BBC Prom 63: Wagner, Ravel and Sibelius

Berlin Philharmonic/Simon Rattle

Royal Albert Hall, 4 September 2012 4 stars

Andre de RidderFor the first of the Berlin Philharmonic’s two concerts at this year’s Proms, Simon Rattle put together a programme that erred very much on the side of substance as opposed to spectacle.

Although composers such as Wagner, Ravel and Sibelius clearly have barnstormers and crowd-pleasers in their catalogues, Rattle’s choices here emphasised orchestral subtlety and complexity of emotion rather than bombast and pageantry, as might have been the case in this context of a packed and expectant festival crowd. For that, Rattle and the orchestra should be commended.

By running pieces and movements into each other - most notably with Ligeti’s opening Atmosphères bleeding successfully into the Prelude to Act One of Lohengrin - and by selecting such a musically cohesive programme, Rattle sought to highlight subterranean connections between these pieces, such that the concert felt at times, winningly, like an argument or thesis writ large.

At the level of such connections, this concert can be deemed an unmitigated success. The extraordinary formal motions of Sibelius’ fourth symphony, for example, where the first, second and fourth movements dovetail on an enigmatic point of truncation and musical argument becomes servile to rhetoric, suddenly felt of a piece with the unpredictable but dazzling play of surfaces and textures of Debussy’s Jeux.

The aforementioned opening dyad of Ligeti and Wagner was similarly successful at this level of interpenetration. Whilst I felt as if, paradoxically (considering the title and the general style of the work), the Ligeti could have been more cohesively realised - too often the piece’s sense of obscure dynamic forces swelling up separately and in confrontation was underplayed in favour of a rather pallid Boulezianism, though this could have been a consequence of the dichotomy of piece and venue - its curious emphasis on tone colour resolved beautifully in the Wagner, which gleamed afresh following its unusual entrée.

Following this opening, Sibelius’ explorations of crumbling common practice musical syntax felt entirely apropos, as if the work was answering and asking questions from and of the previous two. The symphony was also really wonderfully done by the band: subtleties of colour and emphasis were too numerous to mention in toto, but of special moment, for me, were the juddering basses in the rolling and surging climax of the third movement, the queasy and groaning strings of the opening, and the ornery brass in the finale. Rattle imbued the performance with just the right amount of ambivalent purpose, too.

Jeux was similarly richly played, though it got roundly upstaged, after some wonderful flute and orchestra interplay in the middle going passages, by the thrashing culmination of Ravel’s Suite No. 2 from Daphnis et Chloe, which, though it was robustly and effectively done, felt a little like an interjection from an entirely more bullish evening of music.

By Stephen Graham

Photo: Simon Rattle conducts at the Proms (Chris Christodoulou)