wed 22/05/2024

BBC Proms: Bronfman, Berlin Philharmonic, Rattle | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Proms: Bronfman, Berlin Philharmonic, Rattle

BBC Proms: Bronfman, Berlin Philharmonic, Rattle

Rattle's Berliners deliver near-perfect Brahms and an ear-tickling modernist milestone

Yefim Bronfman and Sir Simon Rattle celebrate victory after the Brahms concertoAll images © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Champagne on ice in the private boxes; scarcely any spare seats. This isn’t the normal situation for a concert climaxing in Witold Lutosławski’s Third Symphony, a modernist work whose usual audience is more than two men and a dog but still doesn’t pull in the crowds.

What pulled in last night’s Proms crowd, of course, was Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, an orchestra so lustrous that people would pay decent money just to hear them tune up.

Indeed, they tuned up beautifully, though still lovelier sounds emerged shortly after as they sank themselves into the work that probably gave most comfort to most listeners, Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto. This is no work for midgets, and in Yefim Bronfman Rattle had a soloist with the weight of utterance and attack to match the Albert Hall’s pomp. Bronfman can be an unpredictable creature, sometimes clattering and bashing sufficiently for a piano to need hospitalisation. Here he was more considerate, mixing hard, agile fingerwork with the softest poetic hesitations. A few suspicious bars aside, he also conversed in perfect step with his orchestral partners, even though his eyes hardly strayed from the keys.

But if Bronfman was good, the orchestra was even better. Stefan Dohr’s expansively romantic opening horn solo gave us a good taste of the beauties to come. King of them all was Ludwig Quandt’s sweetly vibrating cello, ushering in a slow movement of such hushed loveliness that I had to remember to breathe. Rattle’s accounts of Brahms’ symphonies with his Berlin forces haven’t been consistently admired – mellifluous textures here, strenuous effects there, some erratic tempi. But this epic concerto found him much more at ease with the composer's language, exquisitely shading the andante’s pace and dynamics, showing real muscle when required, and inspiring playing of magnificent humanity and warmth.

This was music that didn’t wear carpet slippersAfter the interval the Berlin Philharmonic’s trademark glow added extra glory to the refined and extraordinary sounds that bubble and squeak through Lutosławski’s symphony, written mainly in the early 1980s. Enveloped in silence during the Brahms, the audience now grew just a little restive. Heads turned; itches were scratched; coughs increased: this was music that didn’t wear carpet slippers. Nor were its textures and sections bonded with any conventional glue: an absence deliberately sought by Lutosławski after he found past examples of large-scale structures, like Brahms’ concertos, rather weighed down with grandeur.

Nothing weighed this symphony down, least of all in this transfiguring, iridescent performance. The four hammered E natural notes at the start suggest a work of heroic defiance (fitting for a Polish composer who in the early 1980s vocally championed the Solidarity movement). But the way ahead is episodic, mercurial, constantly taking surprising flight into Lutosławski’s specialty of controlled improvisation – now as much a sign of the period as men’s flared trousers.

After an elegant indication from Rattle’s left hand, instrumentalists set off through their assigned material, wobbling drunkenly or chattering like birds, but always with that Berlin finesse, that warmth of colour. Back with his baton, Rattle stirred and prodded with the vigour and passion other conductors might reserve for Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben.

In the audience hullabaloo following the climax – a stunning airport take-off followed by a return of the E natural tattoo – Rattle raised up Lutoslawski’s score for our particular applause. We roared, of course, and deservedly so. Though we’d have roared as much, I suspect, if the orchestra had been playing a restaurant menu, even a tax bill. This band would make sweet music from anything.

This is no work for midgets, and in Yefim Bronfman Rattle had a soloist with the weight of utterance and attack to match the Albert Hall’s pomp

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Wonderfully written review - much better than the usual supercilious style of this website - well done and thank you!

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