Whenever Simon Rattle brings his Berlin Philharmonic to Britain, there’s a sense of boy-made-good about it that’s infectious. Hearts inflate with pride to see a Briton at the helm of arguably the greatest orchestra on earth, and you can feel the audience onside, willing the concert to be special – as it usually is, because the Berlin Phil musicians are like nothing else, with solo-status capabilities that shone when they were here for two high-profile Proms the other week.
An orchestra of soloists, though, is like a chariot pulled by stallions. It’s a hard drive that requires the exercise of something close to tyranny to work. And Rattle is no tyrant. Which is why I tend to leave his Philharmonic concert trying to convince myself that they were wonderful, but fearing that they could have achieved more if Rattle had been tougher on his players and exploited their potential with the ruthlessness that great conducting tends to need.
The two Proms programmes were, like many in the current season, oddly organised. The first was short but challenging: a brief moment of classically uncompromising Boulez followed by maybe the most difficult to bring off of the Mahler Symphonies, No 7. The second was an easier listen but so easy it felt lightweight, with Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances in the first half (pieces that are usually done as encores), and Brahms’s mild-mannered 2nd Symphony after the interval.
You couldn’t fault the playing in these concerts: it was of a level that no British orchestra could match. So why did I feel short-changed? Partly because of the poor programming, but equally because the Mahler didn’t rise above the problems in the score, the Dvořák was too tame, the Brahms too soft. The only thing that really held me was a new commission from Julian Anderson, Incantesimi, that prefaced the Dvořák, and packed richly colourful ideas into its smooth, seductive 10-minute duration. Ideas that the orchestra had obviously rehearsed with care, and realised with eloquence. To hear the Philharmonic in this music was to hear them at their best; and even at their less-than-best, they still had more to offer than most other orchestras. But the sensation of unrealised possibilities was hard to shrug off.
Comparably worth noting as the Proms came to a close this year was a Concerto for Orchestra by Bayan Northcott, making his Proms debut with a substantial score at the age of 76. Carefully crafted, ultra-serious, it took the rigorous, abstract form you might expect of someone who has spent most of his life being a critic (for the Daily Telegraph and Independent). But it was engaging, clever, and no doubt encouraging for those of riper years. Never too late.
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