Prom 67: Berliner Philharmoniker/Rattle, Royal Albert Hall, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It was a privilege being in the hall for this one. Two astonishing cornerstones of the repertoire, the century between them distilled into a 20-minute interval.

It was a privilege being in the hall for this one. Two astonishing cornerstones of the repertoire, the century between them distilled into a 20-minute interval. Great performances make great music new and immediate and progressive. Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker made us listen to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony as we had listened to Schoenberg's Variations for Orchestra before it. They made us listen, but they made us hear, too. And, in the case of the Beethoven, compelled us to reappraise what we heard.

Hearing the Schoenberg - really hearing it - is like fast-forwarding through all one's musical experiences. There are not many more eventful half-hours in the entire repertoire. No large-scale orchestral composition is scored quite like this but Rattle and his fantastic orchestra didn't seek to blind us with the science; they seduced us with the sensations.

Then the Beethoven Nine dawned. The opening bars emerged as the Schoenberg had emerged - mysterious and beautiful. Schoenberg's world slowed down and expectant. Rattle made the opening bars as nebulous as I've ever heard them, like even he hadn't yet grasped the potential power of those first tentative gropings in the violins. What followed was explosive and elemental and the dynamic and expressive range was positively theatrical - Beethoven as King Lear. To borrow from Donald Tovey, the heavens were indeed on fire. This was the moment, Rattle made you feel, that the lid finally came off the 18th century and Beethoven stood glowering into the abyss of an uncertain future.

Rattle's way of laying bare a score keeps revealing more from scores you think you've known all your life. The way the great slow movement variations flowed one to the other, as if by a process of osmosis, drew parallels again with the fluency of Schoenberg's inspiration. Only here did I feel that Rattle occasionally nursed this or that detail a little too attentively. But what beauty, and what purpose, in the playing.

Even the finale sounded new. The first appearance of the ubiquitous "Ode to Joy" - so hushed in the cellos and basses as to be almost intangible - really did sound like a new beginning (or the hope for such) not the umpteenth rerun of some tired iconic anthem. The City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus, a blast from Rattle's past, gave Schiller's words clarity, not just volume. The tacky Turkish March laughed in the face of militarism and the whole idealistic edifice hurtled towards yet another uncautiously optimistic resolution. Of the 100 performances of the piece thus far given at the Proms, this could resonate longest. I'm still reeling.

Booking: 020-7589 8212; www.bbc.co.uk/proms. Prom 67 online to September 12

Comments