First Night: Simon Rattle / Berliner Philharmoniker, Royal Albert Hall, London

A rapturous response to Rattle's return

There wasn't a cough or a rustle as the first notes of Beethoven's Symphony No 4 sounded through the packed and expectant Albert Hall: Britain's favourite musical son was back where he belonged.

Eight years ago Simon Rattle recorded this work with the Wiener Philharmoniker, and the results, though youthfully exuberant, were raw and rough-edged. Now heading the Berliner Philharmoniker, he chose to start this Prom with the same work, and the contrast could not have been greater.

Each movement was now fastidiously shaped. The dark and mysterious introduction was assured; the explosion of high spirits into which it segued was quintessentially Beethovenian. The serenely flowing Adagio had suggestions of unplumbed deeps; the Allegro had bounding energy, but was light on its feet; Rattle extracted maximum expressiveness from the economy of means which the score prescribed.

And so to Mahler's First Symphony. Its evocation of the awakening of spring, with the huge muted chord on strings enriched by distant trumpet fanfares and cuckoo-calls on the flute, was delicately atmospheric: Rattle's construction of this movement's sound-world was leisurely and assured. The Austrian peasant knees-up in the ensuing Scherzo reflected earthy exuberance, while the grave dance which formed its Trio had childlike sweetness.

The third movement's funeral march is this symphony's dark heart. Inspired by an engraving of a huntsman's funeral – where the coffin was carried by woodland animals – it was exquisitely turned. Rattle brought out the sardonic quality lurking in the instruments' successive entrances.

But the long fourth movement presents a perennial problem. This symphony was Mahler's first purely orchestral work: he was just 24 when he wrote it, and went on tinkering with it – later entitling it the "Titan" – for 10 further years. He said it "came gushing out like a mountain torrent", and that's exactly how its closing movement comes across. Rattle brought great tenderness to its romantic melody – which presages the "Death in Venice" movement of the fifth symphony – but neither he nor his wonderful wind players were able to cloak the bombast of the conclusion.

The air-waves are currently full of chat about Mahler's music being "philosophical", and about his Nostradamus-style ability to foretell the political future. This performance was a powerful reminder that his music needs no such factitious crutches: its emotional journey is both its raison d'etre and – defects notwithstanding - its achievement.

Rattle, now 55, is one of the eminences grises of his profession. In a short space of time in the early new year he will be conducting more concerts in London than he has for a long time. Is he thinking of coming home? If the rapturous response of last night's audience is anything to go by, that would be a popular move.

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