The symphony orchestra as intimate ensemble, the string quartet as orchestra-by-implication: judged purely in terms of live, unamplified sound and artistic interdependency, the first two nights of the Berlin Philharmonic’s extended London visit were as complete as any concertgoer could hope to hear. And as a statement of musical expressiveness, it was pretty astonishing – an overwhelming endorsement of the way these 100-plus individuals continue to evolve and mutate, reacting like a fertile organism to the nourishing impulse of their music director, Sir Simon Rattle.
Sunday’s Viennese programme placed the sole surviving movement of Mahler’s Piano Quartet between Schubert’s C minor quartet fragment and Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony for 15 players – each demonstrating that, even in reduced formation, the Berliners’ outsize personalities define the group. Monday paired Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagète, in the enlarged 1947 version, with Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, and on Wednesday they conclude with Mahler’s Third.
The pinnacle was Mahler’s Fourth. Thanks to its fragrant colouring and deft characterisation, the performance proclaimed new boundaries to explore, fresh depths to plumb, even in a symphony as apparently innocent and familiar as this. Not everyone will have liked the elasticity of Rattle’s opening two movements, a rollercoaster of accelerando and diminuendo. But the sheer pungency of the winds and muscular majesty of the strings, each throwing up unexpected and often jarring counter-voices, justified the extremes of racing energy and lingering repose. The slow movement and finale (with soprano Christina Schäfer) were achingly beautiful, drawing on a softness and sensitivity that no orchestra comes anywhere near matching.
Heard alone in the Stravinsky, the strings made less of an impression, perhaps because the Berliners are too democratic to let leading voices define the music – a trait better suited to the previous evening’s quartets. Schoenberg’s Second Quartet was irradiated by Anna Prohaska’s instrumental voicing of the soprano part, while Mahler’s teenage Piano Quartet left us wishing he had written more chamber music. But in big music or small, the Berliners proved that “chamber” is not about size of ensemble but attitude of mind.