No beating around the bush with this programme: for his second Prom with the Berlin Philharmonic (now, it seems, fully rebranded as the Berliner Philharmoniker in the programme), Sir Simon Rattle presented two pillars of the repertoire in symphonies by Brahms and Shostakovich.
Brahms's third, sitting rather ambiguously between the pastoral second and the mighty fourth, has always been underrepresented at the festival and if any orchestra was going to do it justice, it was the Berliners.
Immediately apparent as Rattle launched into the opening Allegro con brio was the fact that, in terms of basic sound, this orchestra is still second to none. However, under their present Artistic Director, it's not just a matter of tonal strength – the violins still have that unmistakable sheen, the brass a deep warmth, the woodwind are mellifluous and perfectly integrated – but of astonishing internal clarity. Even playing fortissimo, there was hardly a detail that didn't register: for this orchestra, the Albert Hall's sometimes muddy acoustic simply didn't exist.
Brahms is not a composer one automatically associates with Rattle –fine recordings of the German Requiem and various concertos notwithstanding – and this seemed to be reflected in a reading of this symphony that was remarkably fresh. There was rhythmic freedom and Rattle exploited his orchestra's astonishing ability to play at either end of the dynamic range without any loss of focus: the wind playing in the first movement's second subject, in particular, was often beautifully hushed; together the stellar section (one of the principal oboes, Albrecht Meyer, has just released his first disc on Decca) blended effortlessly, and they were beguiling in their solos. Perhaps, though, it was the horn playing of Radek Baborek that took the honours for producing one moment of pin-dropping beauty after another: his solo at the first movement's close was a highlight.
Even if there were times in the Andante when I wondered whether Rattle himself wasn't basking a little too much in the playing of his orchestra, the conductor allowed his players freedom without ever losing momentum. A leisurely Poco allegretto was distinguished with some predictably seductive playing, the rich-toned Berlin cellos wonderful in their plaintive melody. There was no lack of drama though in the finale, even if again it was the heart-melting rendition of the gentle coda that left the lasting impression.
Moving on to Shostakovich's great Tenth Symphony, the same virtues were immediately apparent. Here, though, Rattle's grasp of the opening movement's long arc was hugely impressive, too, as he built up to a powerfully regulated climax. However, during this performance I did begin to wonder whether if anything the Berliner's playing was almost too beautiful. Having spent their first Prom luxuriating in the sensual worlds of Messiaen's Turangalîla and Wagner's Tristan, there were times when I felt this music's teeth sounded a little blunted. If the wind playing in the early parts of the movement was extremely beautiful – principal clarinet Wenzel Fuchs in particular – they seemed to lack the necessary bite as it progressed. This was an impression confirmed by the second movement Allegro: the strings' opening figure was powerfully delivered but the clarinets' theme was underpowered and the side-drum curiously muted. Things improved but even though the wind section launched themselves with some abandon into their demonic figures, one couldn't escape the feeling that it was slightly against their nature. However, there was no doubting their virtuosity or that of the strings as they in turn threw themselves fearlessly into their madcap passagework half way through the movement.
I wondered, as the performance progressed, whether Rattle had set out to emphasise the score's many passages of beauty rather than its occasional savage grotesquery: if that had been his aim, he succeeded completely. And although I missed again that dash of acerbic irony in some of the Allegretto, there was something revelatory in an account where so much of Shostakovich's masterly score was so clearly audible. The playing in the finale, if anything, achieved the greatest balance between textual clarity and drama. This might not have been a Shostakovich Ten to plumb the deepest depths but it ended up as a thrilling ride: it highlighted the beauty and subtlety of this score and underlined the Berlin Philharmonic's reputation as an orchestra without peer.
By Hugo Shirley