Berlin Philharmonic/Rattle review – all guns blazing on Simon's farewell tour

Royal Festival Hall, London
The fruits of Simon Rattle’s long partnership with the Berlin orchestra were evident in a magisterial Bruckner Ninth and vivid miniatures by Hans Abrahamsen

In 2002, newly installed as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, Simon Rattle brought Bruckner’s unfinished Ninth Symphony to the Festival Hall on one of their first joint visits. The performance was a serious disappointment, wonderfully played – as you would expect, but all on the surface and with little interpretative depth.

What a change the intervening 16 years have wrought. Here, in the first of two London concerts marking Rattle’s departure from Berlin, was a performance for the ages of that same Bruckner symphony. It showed how much Rattle has come to terms with Bruckner during his Berlin years but, above all, it displayed the deep musical rapport between players and conductor that has matured during his long tenure in the German capital.

Rattle got the Berlin job in part because of his commitment to new music. True to his lights, both of this week’s farewell concerts open with UK premieres. This first unveiled Hans Abrahamsen’s Three Pieces for Orchestra of 2014-17, three vivid and contrasting miniatures, by turns high energy, icily still and, the incomparable Berlin double basses to the fore, sighing.

Back in 2002, Rattle performed the familiar three-movement torso of Bruckner’s ninth. Since then, he has embraced (and recorded) the 1986 completion (by Nicola Samale and a quartet of scholars) of the finale that Bruckner left in sketch form when he died in 1896, and it was this version which they performed now.

At the very start it felt as if Rattle was still pushing the musical argument a touch too fast to allow for Bruckner’s characteristic uncertainties, but this doubt soon passed because of the sheer depth and range of expression, often in the tiniest details of phrasing and interplay, that marked this magisterial performance. With such an orchestra, the development sections were special glories but the whole thing was peerlessly played. Traditionalists will feel a pang that the symphony no longer ends with the hard-won serenity of the close of the adagio, with its unanswered question hanging in the air. But the blazing conclusion of the finale is movingly and authentically Brucknerian.


Martin Kettle

The GuardianTramp

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