First Night: Berliner Philharmoniker/Simon Rattle, Queen Elizabeth Hall

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'Orchestral republic' shows its power with Rattle at the helm

Start as you mean to go on. It was entirely typical that Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker should have started their week-long London residency with a concert in which the orchestra's twelve cellists purveyed Gershwin, Duke Ellington, and bossa nova to an audience of children. For one of the first things Rattle did, on taking over the helm of the band which he describes as music's equivalent to Real Madrid, was to decree that schooling the listeners of tomorrow would be a priority.

It was also typical that their first grown-up concert should be given not by the full orchestra, but by selected players in intimate chamber groupings. For this is an orchestra of soloists, in both musical excellence and attitude: self-governing, self-selecting and reserving the right to hire (and fire) their conductors, they describe themselves as an "orchestral republic".

Their opening could not have been simpler or more powerful. One single movement was all the ailing Schubert managed to write of his String Quartet in C minor, but these players turned it into nine minutes of filigree perfection, as it alternately sang, smouldered and burst into flame.

Then it was time for a work which had been one of Rattle's calling cards since he flourished it in his Channel 4 TV series Leaving Home. The dwelling in question was that of "home-key" tonality, on which three centuries of classical music were built: Rattle wanted to show how its breakdown ushered in the anything-goes musical world we inhabit now, and Schoenberg's String Quartet No 2 was the work which epitomised that breakdown.

As it proceeds, it gradually floats free of all tonal anchors, with the Stefan George poem (added by a soprano) vividly underlining the point: "I feel the air of another planet... I am dissolved in swirling sound." Looking as though she had stepped straight out of a Klimt painting, soprano Anna Prohaska brought the most refined artistry to her part, blending her timbre with those of the strings as though she was one of them. When she gave voice to the poet's rapture on that new planet, the whole piece acquired an airborne lightness.

It was only with the final work – Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No 1, also written on the cusp of change – that Rattle made his appearance at the head of a posse of wind players to bolster the strings. And he did his job beautifully, sculpting the work's intricately layered contours, controlling its busy tranquillity and bringing out its valedictory quality, since this was more a farewell to the old world than a greeting to the new.

And here Rattle gave us an intimation of his full orchestra's fabled sound, which will be unleashed tonight, with Stravinsky and Mahler, at the Barbican. Never before have London's normally rivalrous big concert halls collaborated in this way: they both want to share the gold dust and they also want to share the high costs of this venture.

But do not even dream about getting a ticket: the 8,000 allocated for this week's events sold out a year ago.

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