Sublime gifts and a straw donkey

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra | Prom 59, Royal Albert Hall
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If energy flagged in the middle of this year's Proms, momentum has well and truly caught up again. The self-improving salads of reconstructed Bach and worthy new commissions have been replaced by a rich diet of the finest international orchestras doing some of the most significant pieces (and some of the least) in the canon - a trend which continues this week. In terms of crowd-pulling, it's about as far as you can go without launching an all-naked Verdi Requiem with Pavarotti and a team of dancing poodles. Or, of course, a sing-along of Land of Hope and Glory.

If energy flagged in the middle of this year's Proms, momentum has well and truly caught up again. The self-improving salads of reconstructed Bach and worthy new commissions have been replaced by a rich diet of the finest international orchestras doing some of the most significant pieces (and some of the least) in the canon - a trend which continues this week. In terms of crowd-pulling, it's about as far as you can go without launching an all-naked Verdi Requiem with Pavarotti and a team of dancing poodles. Or, of course, a sing-along of Land of Hope and Glory.

The audiences were out in force for the visits of the San Francisco Symphony and the Berlin Philharmonic. Well-dressed Germans flooded Kensington Gore on Tuesday evening, to be replaced by impeccably polite Americans on Wednesday. Both concerts were long sold-out and queues of hopeful prommers snaked around the belly of the Albert Hall. London had not been kind to San Francisco's charming conductor Michael Tilson Thomas while he was based in England, but now it was salivating at the prospect of American glamour. Berlin's appearance was billed as the last chance to see them under the baton of Abbado, but Abbado had had to withdraw because of illness. Bernard Haitink had "graciously agreed" to step in (though no right-minded maestro would turn down that invitation), so the buzz of excitement was even greater. And both orchestras had sweetly brought a local gift with them; in San Francisco's case, a mercifully brief slice of modernist Americana in the form of Carl Ruggles' Sun-treader, and in the BPO's case the hopelessly untranslatable Bavarian joke, Strauss's Don Quixote.

If ever there was a straw donkey of a foreign present, Don Quixote has to be it. There was something surreal about hearing what is probably the greatest orchestra in Europe (some would say the world) forging a fantastically luxurious silk purse out of this whipped-cream covered sow's ear, and I can only be grateful that I hadn't had to sit through a performance of this daft work by a lesser orchestra. Loopy, lumpy, "comic" story-telling is the flip-side of Strauss' mournfully beautiful and humanistic operatic mode, but Don Quixote lacks the coherence of Don Juan or the irritating Till Eulenspiegel and there's really only so much whimsy anyone can take, no matter how enchantingly it is played. After 45 minutes of fluttering furbelows, frills, musical burps and snores, the chaotic old man had far outstayed his welcome and I was reminded of the story about Willy Rushton at a dinner party; "Ah, humour!" remarked his neighbour, "Where would we be without it?" "Germany" was Rushton's reply.

But most of the audience was there for the Beethoven, and the Seventh Symphony (which contains more real humour than the gangling Strauss, and intelligence and anger and wonder and sheer translucent beauty) was one of those performances that change the air. In a reading that stayed close to the hair-raising metronome markings of Beethoven, Haitink made the orchestra entirely his own - sweeping away the memorial weight of the Karajan era and delivering this breathing, grasping, genius brat of a symphony. With a swift economical up-beat he placed the first chord clear and searingly bright, creating in an instant a back-drop of thin, intense colour for the Enlightenment drama of the symphony to unfold against.

The special genius of the Berlin Philharmonic is a chameleon quality; an ability to respond unreservedly to the instincts of a conductor, enlarge upon those instincts, change their tensile suffused sound and remain utterly cohesive. It might be tempting to say that they move as one animal but in the Beethoven, where the separate qualities of wood, brass and string are so artfully contrasted and blended, it was more a case of moving as interdependent elements of one natural scene, like grass, water, trees, earth and clouds responding to changes of light and temperature.

This was not a Romantic interpretation; Haitink's flexible but rigorous direction took no prisoners. The multiple layering and extension of dissonance in the first movement was cruelly sweet, the energy of the Vivace palpable. The pianissimo at the start of the beguiling Allegretto was astonishing (far quieter and more concentrated than that of a smaller orchestra), so too the determined-to-the-point-of-pig-headedness solidity of the third movement (a presto that longs to run faster and faster) in order to deliver a furiously fast finale without changing the tactus. It was a breath-taking performance - the wind players in particular looked utterly jubilant - and one which I doubt I'll hear bettered.

Sir Roger Norrington is the only British conductor who regularly and fluently addresses his audience, but almost all American maestros do it. It's a little alarming, this breaking of an entrenched European protocol that demands distance between the listener and the venerated vessel of high-art. You wonder if they're about to break into a rendition of New York, New York or, in this case, I left my heart in San Francisco. Michael Tilson Thomas did not break into song at the beginning of his concert but introduced us to Carl Ruggles in a charming speech about the "cantankerous yankee" composer that he had known as a young man.

By the end of his debonair patter I would have happily bought a fleet of used cars from Tilson Thomas but I still wouldn't buy Carl Ruggles' music. I suspect that the orchestra is fond of Sun-treader because it makes a grand showcase for their talent for the fast, brilliant, loud and spiky - but Ruggles' style of condensing a panoply of different themes in half the time it would take other composers to explore them induced both a headache and a desire to assassinate the timpanist.

The soft intimacy of the Schumann piano concerto came as a shock after this. Martha Argerich, the wonderful Argentinian pianist, rocked slowly and arythmically from side to side as she picked out the crystalline notes with child-like simplicity. The big question about this concerto ("a piano concerto without piano" said Liszt, which just shows what a vulgarian he was) is how soloistically to treat it. The orchestra very much took the accompanist's back-seat on Wednesday, which displaced the balance of a piece that works best as a duet between piano and orchestra. The result was a curiously uncommunicative performance of fleeting beauty seen through a dusty lens.

The real meat of the concert was the Rite of Spring, a vivid, brash, clever and animalistic interpretation of this great work. The fast vibrato of San Francisco's strings was weirdly raw - as befits this histrionic, exciting piece - the brass wide and flash in tone, the woodwind as sap-heavy as a time-lapse photographed vine. Additional thrills came from Tilson Thomas's Bob Fosse-style jumps and rapier beat. I can't quite imagine this orchestra in the Black Forest territory of the Berlin Phil but they have certainly found their home in the technicolour thrust of Stravinsky's Rite.

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