There is always that special air of anticipation in the arena of the Albert Hall when the Berliner Philharmoniker comes into town, and that was entirely in evidence at the first of their two Proms appearances this year. British audiences have almost adopted the Berlin Phil as their own, having been under the baton of Liverpudlian Sir Simon Rattle for over a decade; both orchestra and conductor were cheered onto the stage before even a note was sounded.
Replicating the programme of their own season opening, the concert featured the two symphonic heavyweights that bookend the Austro-German tradition, Beethoven and Mahler. Although the choice of symphonies, Beethoven's Fourth Symphony and Mahler's First, are lesser-known works from each composer, it remains core repertoire for the Philharmoniker, and did it ever show.
Coming between his heroic Third Symphony and the dramatic Fifth, Beethoven's Fourth is almost anachronistically classical, and the reduced forces of the Philharmoniker rejoiced in all its chamber-like exquisiteness. From the mysterious Adagio opening that clearly echoes Haydn, the orchestra held the audience rapt, the wind in particular were exceptional, the dialogue between Emmanuel Pahud and Albrecht Mayer on flute on oboe in the finale just glorious. It served to emphasise what I love about the Berliner Philharmoniker, and what distinguishes them as world-class: it's as if the players all know a wonderful secret, and if you listen carefully enough, they may just share it with you.
Mahler's First Symphony does not announce itself the way, say, Brahms does, but rather a meditative pastoral scene unfolds over static harmonics that shimmered and glistened under the bows of the Berliner string sections. As in the Beethoven, Rattle's structural phrasing was committed and exact. A real player's conductor, Rattle always slightly anticipates the beat, his gestures are incredibly descriptive without being obtrusive, nor is he afraid to just be still and let the music, the players, speak for themselves. From the opening evocation of the forest, through the curious funereal Frere Jacques minor march Rattle commanded everyone's attention right to the symphony's ebullient end, the thrilled ovation justly deserved.
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Photo: Simon Rattle conducting the Berliner Philhamoniker