There are few orchestras and conductors that could guarantee a sold out Royal Albert Hall for a concert including Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, but the Berliner Philharmoniker and their music director Sir Simon Rattle achieved just that, so hats off for programming such challenging music in the second of their two appearances at this year’s Proms.
The first half of the programme consisted of two works which had broader appeal. The evening began with a transcendental performance of the Prelude to Act I of Wagner’s Parsifal. Here the richness of the Berlin’s strings provided a halo of sound, cushioned by the sonorous brass in the ‘Dresden Amen’ motif. Rattle’s account was luminous, rich in detail and only the hall’s stubborn accoustic got in the way of deciphering the interplay between first and second violins for despite Rattle placing them antiphonally, too much detail from the seconds failed to register.
Karita Mattila was the superlative soloist in a gloriously-etched, lovingly played account of Strauss’ valedictory Four Last Songs. There are many ways to interpret these songs but Mattila and Rattle achieved the perfect balance between nostalgia, loss and rebirth, thankfully refusing to wallow in sentimentality. Rattle’s reading was fleet of foot, and the members of the Berlin Phil responded with playing that was both sensuous and lush – there were outstanding solo contributions from Guy Braunstein (concert master) and Stefan Dohr (horn). And what can one about Ms Mattila? She inhabited the songs completely, produced an amazing palette of tonal colour, and with her astonishing voice rode the climaxes of each song with refulgent tone. This was as complete a performance as you’re likely to hear.
Sir Simon addressed the audience before the second half asking us not to applaud between each piece as the Shoenberg, Webern and Berg worked so well together that we were encouraged to listen to them ‘as if this was Mahler’s 11th Symphony’. If only he’d also asked people to refrain from coughing between each movement – what is wrong with audiences these days? The coughing was obtrusive, rude and off-putting and by the end of the evening had become intolerable. Maybe they were not engaging with the music, which was a shame as these three works by these pioneers of the second Viennese School together provided a fascinating triptych into their a-tonal world. Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces failed to fully engage, but Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra were an often hectic, but always enthralling journey through a gamut of mixed emotions. Best of the three was Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra which still contain a nod, albeit slight to tonality. Rattle knows this music inside out and he brought a distinct tinta to each work, whilst the playing of the Berlin Phil was breathtaking, not only for its pin-point accuracy but the depth of emotion that they brought to the works as well. This was one of the most memorable Proms of the season, and certainly the most challenging and exciting.