The legend of Tristan and Isolde was the theme of this concert, the first of two appearances by the Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle at this season’s Proms. Widely regarded as the world’s finest orchestra, the Berliners not surprisingly found themselves playing to a packed Royal Albert Hall – although it’s less likely they were expecting the enthusiastic greeting in German provided to them by a group of well-rehearsed Prommers in the Arena.
Fortunately, the most enthusiastic Proms audiences are usually the quietest, and the performance of the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde which opened the concert was received by a raptly attentive audience. The orchestra was seated with antiphonal violins, allowing the interplay of themes between the sections to be heard as Wagner intended. In both Prelude and Liebestod, Rattle carefully sustained tension at a moderate tempo, avoiding any temptation to push ahead. The climax of the Liebestod benefited strongly from the weight and polish of the orchestra’s celebrated string tone, the sheer physicality of the players’ bowing at such times giving the impression that they might at any moment topple from their seats.
The focus of the evening was Messiaen’s 80 minute Turangalla-Symphonie, the centrepiece of a trio of works that the composer based on the Tristan legend. The work’s famous ondes martenot part was played by Tristan Murail, who once studied the instrument with its inventor, Maurice Martenot, while the piano role was taken by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who has made a specialism of the piece.
Rather puzzlingly this was a disappointing performance. Rattle led a spacious overview and there were impressive moments, notably the breathtaking delicacy of the close of Chant d’amour 2 and the tremendous volume of sound at the end of the following Joie du sang des étoiles. But the interpretation rarely seemed to provide more than surface brilliance, failing to do justice, for instance, to the passion of the Chant d’amour 1, or the exultation of the concluding movement. An exception was Aimard’s piano contribution, virtuosic and full of insight into inner meaning of the music. It provided a barometer of what was missing elsewhere.