New Year’s Eve Concert, Philharmonie, Berlin

The Berliner Philharmoniker’s traditional New Year’s Eve concert is more than just a concert. It is also a fixture on national television, and, inevitably, a ratings battle. Big-name soloists are a must.

This year, Cecilia Bartoli is the Berliner’s drawcard. The world loves her fiery coloratura, her extravagant frocks, her exuberant persona. But there is a catch. Bartoli sings baroque music, generally with period-instrument ensembles. Undaunted, Simon Rattle pared down his vast orchestra to a lean ensemble for her selection of Handel arias and his of Rameau dance music. He has worked regularly with the orchestra on baroque style, as has a whole swathe of specialist conductors. Even so, it was repeatedly and uncomfortably clear throughout the concert’s first half that music of this era is not the Berliner Philharmoniker’s home ground.

Both sides made compromises. The addition of harpsichord (Raphael Alpermann, heavy-handed) and lute to the ensemble gave Bartoli the continuo texture she needed; she, uncharacteristically, agreed to sing more than a semitone too high, at the orchestra’s modern pitch (A 443). Bartoli’s is not a big voice, and the Berlin instrumentalists are not quiet players. She was amplified with insufficient subtlety for Saturday’s concert, the first of three; the technicians have two repeat performances to get it right.

Despite all these constraints, Bartoli knows how to put on a show. Her first two arias, from Lotario and Teseo respectively, were full of the turbo-powered coloratura that she delivers with such effortless elan; the third, Lascia la spina from Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (later included in Rinaldo, with a new text), showed the more rounded, melting colours of which she is capable in legato passages, or would have done, under more favourable acoustic conditions.

Rattle’s pairing of this repertoire with dances from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Les Boréades was astute. His passion for the asymmetric rhythms and bizarre colours of the octogenarian composer’s final flights of fancy is infectious, and he has his own whimsical, bottom-heavy take on the work.

No symphony orchestra with its eye on the future can afford to ignore the imperatives of historically informed style. But it was hard to leave the concert’s first half without wondering: should this orchestra be performing this repertoire?

In the second half, from the first notes of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance in C Major, op. 46 No. 1, there was a sense of collective exhalation. The Berlin Philharmonic, back to its full forces, is in its element in this repertoire, and delighted the full house with long phrases, luxurious cushions of sound, and easy feats of virtuosity.

A lush rendition of Ravel’s second Daphnis et Chloé orchestral suite and a quick trot through Brahms’s first Hungarian dance, and everyone was happy.

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