At first glance the programme appeared luxuriously varied – disparate almost – the sort of showy tour de force to be expected from the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle. But in performance, this, the first of two Proms concerts, did not simply confirm the orchestra’s dazzling capabilities, and Rattle’s very real charisma, but also offered a deep exploration of musical form and structure.
It began with Ligeti’s Atmosphères. Abstract clusters of sound, rather than any harmonic or rhythmic development, propel this 1961 composition, familiar to many from Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. And the work’s sense of cosmic transcendence was exploited brilliantly here: at its close, Rattle counted the beats of a silent segue into the Prelude from Wagner’s Lohengrin. The effect (having successfully averted applause) was intensely dramatic, presenting the two pieces as a single narrative, a kind of creation myth.
The drama continued throughout Sibelius’s mysterious Fourth Symphony. Here again, the landscape is bleak: a chilling soundworld heavy with dread and punctuated with doom-laden silences. It is a deeply disturbing work that gives little sense of traditional symphonic progression. Rattle’s fascination with detail – with wringing out the agonised shrieks of the strings and enhancing the suspense during the periods of pianissimo (a daring feat when faced with the cavernous acoustics of the Albert Hall) – made for a tense and penetrating account.
If the first half of the concert was characterised by an inhuman calm, the second half, comprising two early 20th-century dance pieces, was full of movement and warm vitality. Again, though, these were works that eschewed conventional structures.
Debussy’s Jeux, a poème dansé written for Diaghilev in 1912, is an almost dream-like single movement. As the name suggests, it is a playful and capricious composition, and a piece dependent on fluid phrasing. Conductors are often tempted to provide too much definition but Rattle demonstrated restraint, his ego evident but impressed with the lightest of touches. The glittering climax provided by the Suite No. 2 from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé arrived like a reward for surviving the earlier gloom: tender and controlled in the opening movement, the orchestra pulled out all the stops for the concluding “Danse générale”.