Terror froze the audience at the Royal Festival Hall last night as Sir Simon Rattle, the Berlin Philharmonic's first ever British maestro, brought Anton Bruckner's unfinished Ninth Symphony to its shockingly discordant final climax. Rarely have London audiences heard brass choirs scream with such unchecked aggression, and yet the sound was never crude. It was an auspicious British debut for Rattle and his recently won Berlin Philharmonic.
The concert had opened with music from 30 or so years ago which would have left the hall empty. Arnold Schoenberg's Second String Quartet is not easy music by any means, but in Rattle's hands the composer's own full-string version sounded both mysterious and palatable. Straight away, this was very much Rattle's sound: lean, attenuated, dynamic and with first and second violins sitting opposite each other (too often they are bunched up together). This meant that dialogue between them was very noticeable. The first movement was all earnestness, the second disorientating.
At one point Rattle, his eyes theatrically wide, put his hand to his mouth in a gesture of mock consternation. For the third and last movement the soprano Dawn Upshaw tackled the taxing but lyrical vocal line with just a touch of Broadway cream, not quite what was needed for "air from another planet''. But she sang beautifully. Rattle's direction of this infinitely fascinating music was inspired, the best possible advocacy for music that is still too little known.
The case for Bruckner's Ninth Symphony was more complex. Yes, it shimmered. Yes, the climaxes were overwhelmingly powerful. And yes, this definitely sounded like the Berlin Philharmonic that we all know and love. But there were oddities about Rattle's interpretation. The second movement should like a Neanderthal romp that stamps ferociously, but last night sounded more like angry barking. The evocative middle section is a twilit pastoral but Rattle was so intent on bringing lustre to the string lines that he all but ignored the crucial woodwind birdsong. The performance sounded impressive, but felt slightly uneasy, as if Rattle was still testing his new toy, infatuated with the sounds it could deliver but not quite sure how to use them in this context. The louder sections however were magnificent.