Introducing the second half of Saturday’s Prom as “an imaginary 11th Symphony of Gustav Mahler”, Simon Rattle asked the audience not to applaud until the end. He then conducted Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra and Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces without pause.
It was risky to propose 40 minutes of uninterrupted modernism to a summer audience of almost 6,000, multiplied many times on radio and television, but the Berlin Philharmonic pulled it off as no other orchestra could. By dangling that Mahlerian bait, Rattle articulated a logic his listeners would swallow. And by drawing from the Berliners such richly coloured and animated playing, poles apart from the analytical Boulez style, he made his early 20th-century Viennese triptych sound as if it was indeed a natural growth from Mahler.
Thanks to that astute programming, the Berliners’ two Proms seemed to span the range of German music. On Friday they had begun with a performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony that recalled Haydn’s wit and geniality as much as it anticipated the Romantic spirit. Then came Mahler’s First Symphony – starting, like the Beethoven, with suspended open chords and similarly proceeding with a breathtaking lightness of touch. Was this really the composer we associate with the cosmos and life’s finality? In Rattle’s hands, neither of these symphonies was hard to digest.
The same could not be said of Saturday’s first half. It began with the Prelude to Parsifal, clean if hardly charismatic, and continued with a soft, soporific, over-sentimentalised rendition of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, in which Karita Mattila tried to use her soprano instrumentally: fine as long as it soars, but hers no longer does. Wonderfully responsive as the Berliners were to each other, with an individual flair and group spirit none can rival, they would have benefited from a clear beat in “Beim Schlafengehen”, the third song, which lost its way. And overall, when Rattle did intervene, he tended to manicure. The abiding impression, though, was of a conductor and orchestra enjoying a second honeymoon. ()