Berlin Philharmonic / Simon Rattle - Barbican and Southbank, 20 - 23 February 2011
If you've been reading the papers over the past few days, you might be forgiven for thinking you'd missed the Second Coming.
The Berlin Philharmonic's four back-to-back nights in London have been greeted by near-universal gushing, including an emotional Guardian editorial invoking Karajan and Furtwängler. Has there been anything quite that overheated since, well, since the last time we had Berliners over? - Daniel Barenboim and his "handsome mahogany-toned Staatskapelle Berlin" to be precise.
And did they earn it?
Barenboim was of course the front-runner for the job eventually won by Simon Rattle - heading up the world's greatest orchestra. Or perhaps second-best, if you believe Gramophone magazine. Rattle did all the conducting on this trip, his sainted status in Britain perhaps a factor in the swift sellout when tickets went on sale in 2009 (yes, 2009).
I skipped the first concert on the tour, an 11.30am Sunday start for the 12 Cellists of the Berliner Philharmoniker, who drew the tinies with the likes of Clap yo' hands and music from The Jungle Book.
The grownups' turn came in the evening. A chamber music programme in the Queen Elizabeth Hall was the first part of a brilliantly-conceived overall programme that not only brought together complementary works (as any good programme does) with a Mahlerian focus, but also displayed over the four days the many different ways in which 100-odd talented musicians can be grouped. Youngish musicians too - I'm not sure whether Rattle has instituted a mid-term clearout or whether he simply brought along the most junior of his players, but the average age of the orchestra seemed to be about half that of the audience.
Schubert's Quartettsatz, Schoenberg's String Quartet No.2 and Mahler's teenage Quartet for Piano and Strings didn't dive too deeply beneath the surface but were remarkable nevertheless for the sheer and very evident passion with which they were played. A provocatively-framed Guardian piece by Tom Service contained a kernel of truth that this performance made blindingly manifest: "The goal in Berlin or Munich is to get to a place where the music is in the bones of the players." It was in the bones too of goth soprano Anna Prohaska, a rising Staatsoper star who joined them for the Schoenberg. Numbers swelled for Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony, a sensual yet finely-delineated orgy of exploding tonality disciplined by Sir Simon's baton.
Monday brought a move to the Barbican. I never find Stravinsky's all-strings Apollon musagète easy going, but I could at least appreciate the cool delicacy of Rattle's approach without falling asleep (that's much, much more of a compliment than it may sound). Mahler 4 was a different matter - irradiated with light, infused with humour, ecstatic from start (controversially) to end. Christine Schäfer, Berlinishly clad in baggy black dungarees over a black lace crop top, was the radiant soloist.
More controversy on Tuesday night. Rattle's vision of Haydn's Symphony No.99 was a strikingly modern one. Pulled around, but never arbitrarily, its classical contours were cloaked in something darker and more enigmatic. The defence against charges of mannerism was the evident sincerity of Rattle's intent. This for me was the high point of the residency. To hear something so familiar and so apparently bound by the restrictions of its form sounding fresh - and so unexpectedly profound it brought me to tears - was a revelation of the best kind.
The inoffensive burbles of Toshio Hosokawa's Horn Concerto for Stefan Dohr followed. Premiered the week before in Berlin and perked up by the spatial effects of soloists dotted around the Barbican's upper levels, its graceful washes of sound were pleasant but unremarkable.
Schubert’s ‘Great' Symphony was a different matter. Balance and translucency characterised Rattle's vigorous but never over-driven reading. What a showcase for the Berlin Philharmonic's indefinable but unquestionably special sound. Those growling basses and purring cellos lend a feline threat, a special tension that seems barely-contained, on the edge of eruption. That's what keeps you on the edge of your seat. The quality of the playing throughout the orchestra - a collection of soloists, as is often said - is just the cream on the cake. It's not totally flawless but always passionate and unselfish.
It was off to the Royal Festival Hall for Wednesday's final concert, Mahler 3 prefaced by superfluous (for me) choral renditions of Brahms' Es tönt ein voller Harfenklang and Hugo Wolf's Elfenlied. The Mahler is difficult to pull off in the best of circumstances, its 100 minutes the symphonic equivalent of a speech by Colonel Gaddafi. Rattle pecked away at details without ever convincing that each part of the work was vital to the whole. On top, a finale of showbizzy extremes struck a manipulative note not previously exploited. Amongst German critics, a rumbling backdrop of discord has persisted throughout Rattle's tenure; here was the perfect illustration of its foundation.
Reservations aside, there was great beauty to be found in the sheer craftsmanship of the musicians and the extraordinary contralto soloist Nathalie Stutzmann. A near-unanimous standing ovation reflected gratitude not for this slightly patchy final night alone, I suspect, but for the entire residency.