Celebrations are under way throughout the musical world to mark the 150th anniversary of Jean Sibelius’ birth, and leading them, in its own undeniably 5 carat musical way, is the Berliner Philharmoniker, under its music director, Sir Simon Rattle, who is also celebrating his 60th birthday. Rattle was keen to perform a cycle of the Finnish composer’s symphonies when he took up the post in Berlin, but went on the record as saying that there was reticence on the part of the players. “Too soon,” they said, given that Sibelius was not a composer who sat comfortably within their repertoire, so Rattle had to bide his time.
Luckily the wait has been worthwhile and, given Rattle’s life-long affinity with Sibelius’ music, the combination of the unparalleled insights and wealth of experience he brings to these works and the superb musicianship of the Berliner Philharmonker certainly made the beginning of this cycle, with his first two symphonies, thrilling and memorable.
With its nostalgic nod towards Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony, Sibelius’ Symphony 1 in E minor, begins with an almost melancholic clarinet solo, here mesmerisingly played by Andreas Ottensamer. When the strings enter the sound is big-boned, verging on the lush, and although the musical landscape that Rattle evokes is more redolent of the Bavarian Alps than the desolate wastelands and forests of Finland, Rattle’s almost bombastic interpretation makes a powerful case for the ironing out of some of Sibelius’ craggier textures.
There was a forcefulness to the third movement, with its seven-note theme executed ferociously on the timpani and then by all sections of the orchestra on its subsequent appearances, that I’ve not experienced before. Rattle didn’t seem worried about pulling the tempi around in the final movement; in any case both conducting and playing were thrilling and inspired.There was a similar emphasis on pellucid textures in the Second Symphony, which the string section ushered in magically, the undulating pulse unerringly right under Rattle’s propulsive baton. Climaxes were bold, growing organically from within, and never felt imposed. The second movement, with its seemingly disjointed themes, never felt episodic as Rattle persuasively gelled all the disparate elements together, supported by terrific playing from the lower strings.
The third movement had energy, guts and drive, interspersed with some achingly beautiful moments from the woodwind, which climaxed into an appropriately robust account of the big ‘tune’ that opens the final movement. The tension between the minor and major modulations was deftly handled, whilst the final bars were thrillingly voiced by the brass. All in all this was as auspicious a start to the Berliner’s London residency as one could wish for.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk.