One advantage that the Berliner Philharmoniker has over many orchestras that visit the Proms is that it does not have to worry about packing its programmes with pot-boilers in order to be sure of a sell-out.
In the first of its two visits to the Royal Albert Hall, under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle, it made the most of this fact by performing several apparently disparate pieces which together created an exciting — and yet remarkably coherent — programme.
The five pieces spanned the years 1846 to 1961, although interestingly three of them were composed between 1909 and 1913. The thrill lay in the way in which the programme as a whole saw a natural progression from pieces that were light in tone, but rich in texture, to those that were more dynamic, exuberant and overtly dramatic in style.
At first glance Ligeti’s Atmosphères (1961) and the Act I Prelude to Wagner’s Lohengrin (1846-48) may not seem to have much in common, but performing them back to back, with just a few silent beats separating the pair, made the synergies quite obvious. While Atmosphères represented an overt attempt to place sound-masses and textures above harmony and counterpoint, Wagner’s earlier work is not entirely devoid of such an idea, as with each repetition of its central motif it feels less and less resolved. In both pieces there is a sense in which the music bursts through the parameters that have been set, whether in the frantic strings or mellifluous flutes in the Ligeti, or the most powerful and emotionally charged passage in the Wagner.
Sibelius’ Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63 demonstrated, in particular, the strength of the Berliner Philharmoniker’s sound. Because it possesses such velvety richness anyway, the orchestra could afford to concentrate on subtlety and detail while still delivering a sufficiently rich tone. This said, the performance was still perhaps a little too reserved, particularly in the score’s most highly charged moments such as the very final chords, but there was no doubting the beauty of the playing.No similar criticism could have been levied against the performances after the interval of two ballets, where the Berliner Philharmoniker suddenly rose to the challenge of injecting sufficient drama into the proceedings. The performance of Debussy’s Jeux, a piece that has always been overshadowed by The Rite of Spring which also premiered in 1913, brought out all of the emotional rivalries and sexual tensions inherent in the story, which is superficially about a lost tennis ball. The performance of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe — Suite No. 2 (1909-12) shimmered with both elegance and power, with the opening ‘Lever du jour’ (Sunrise) proving particularly evocative.