The London Concert

Brahms: Es tönt ein voller Harfenklang / Wolf: Elfenlied / Mahler: Symphony No. 3. Anke Herrmann (sop), Nathalie Stutzmann (cont), BBC Singers, London Symphony Chorus, Choir of Eltham College, Berliner Philharmoniker / Simon Rattle. Royal Festival Hall, London – Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011.

This concert was the culmination of a series of concerts that the Berliner Philharmoniker gave in London. Tickets were like gold dust and I realized when I looked at the envelope this morning that I had actually bought them in December 2009 and they had pretty much sold out instantly. It was certainly a superb evening, one that will remain in the memory for a long time to come.

The concert began with two brief songs – one each by Brahms and Wolf. These were beautifully performed by the BBC Singers who reminded us why they are one of the finest choirs in the world. In the Wolf they were joined by the somewhat dry soprano of Anke Herrmann. They were pleasant enough though to be frank, I don’t think they particularly added anything to the evening.

The real draw was naturally the Mahler and this was outstanding. The last Mahler I had heard live was Dudamel’s disappointing Mahler 9 and this was playing and conducting of a very different league. While it wasn’t quite the overwhelming emotional occasion that Rattle’s Mahler 2nd was back in October, it was still a splendid performance. It really brought home why Rattle and the Berliners are such supreme Mahler interpreters – they had thought about the piece and approached it fresh. There were some incredible insights – the third movement, taken at a swifter tempo than usual was incredibly beautiful, the players alive to every nuance. Everything came from the text and the argument and it was clearly thought-through and logical. I’m not sure I’m explaining this as eloquently as I’d like to but it was clear that this was a reading that took both the long and the short view of the piece and it knew where it wanted to go. The opening of the fourth movement for example was barely audible and Nathalie Stutzmann was a stunning soloist. There was a real sense of time standing still at this point. She is someone I would very much like to hear in the 2nd and the 8th. The 5th movement was very well done by the Eltham College boys and the combined BBC Singers and London Symphony Chorus. The only small thing was that the BBC Singers should have been scattered amongst the choir – the blend wasn’t perfect – but this would have been logistically impossible.

The final movement was everything one could expect – stunningly played (ok the trumpets were very obviously tired towards the end and had a few accidents), cogently argued and a very real conclusion to a piece that sometimes feels like it doesn’t want to end.

I haven’t said too much about the first two movements but I feel that this is where the Festival Hall acoustic fought against the piece. The best way that I can describe it is the difference between looking at an x-ray and a photograph. Listening to the Philharmoniker in the Berlin Philharmonie is a very different experience. They are at home there and their sound is tailored to a space that they are very familiar with. It’s like looking at a very high definition image. The colour is spectacular and yet there is incredible detail. The Royal Festival Hall on the other hand made the sound seem overly brassy, the strings nowhere near as rich as I know they sound and made it much easier to hear individual strands rather than a glorified whole. This was particularly noticeable in the first movement perhaps due to the sparser orchestration around the beginning even though the marching band tuttis were still quite something.

My overall sense of the evening is that Rattle sees the third as Mahler’s pastoral symphony – it ended not what a great blaze of sound but paradoxically it seemed both loud and relaxed. It was a deeply felt and considered interpretation and one I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to hear.

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