Berliner Philharmoniker/Rattle in Australia [Perth Concert Hall]

Concert One [Saturday, November 13, 2010]

Symphony No.99 in E flat
Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op.6
Komarov’s Fall
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.73

Concert Two [Sunday, November 14, 2010]

Symphonic Dances, Op.45
Symphony No.1

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 14 November, 2010
Venue: Perth Concert Hall, Australia

Sir Simon Rattle. Photograph: Mat Hennek EMIIt’s not often one gets to witness history in the making. But that’s just what the lucky Perth audiences did for these two concerts by Berliner Philharmoniker, the orchestra’s first on Australian soil. The Sunday-evening was also significant for another reason, in that the concert was simulcast direct from Perth Concert Hall to regional centres around Western Australia, a state roughly the size of Europe but with a population of only 2.3 million. Tickets for the simulcast sold out in one hour.

This was the first time many of us, myself included, had heard Berliner Philharmoniker live. To say it was a revelation would be an understatement, and it was no surprise that not only were people weeping openly throughout the concerts but that at the end of each everyone immediately shot up from their seats, screaming and applauding ecstatically.

It wasn’t a question of being star-struck: these were superb performances of music carefully chosen to demonstrate the breadth and range of the orchestra’s repertoire and skill. And the sound! The Perth Concert Hall isn’t large, seating just over 1,700 people and the acoustic is internationally recognised as one of the finest in Australia. So the variegated yet rounded and blended winds and brass, and the gloriously rich strings filled the hall with ease. Frankly, I’d never heard anything quite like it.

The Saturday-afternoon concert was the more varied of the two, Haydn and Brahms bookending Berg and a short work by Australian composer and former Berlin Philharmonic violist, Brett Dean. Conducting a reduced orchestra in the Haydn, Simon Rattle immediately established the conversational parameters of the music while enforcing a crispness and precision that added much to the buoyancy and, at times, humour of the performance.

If we were being teased in the Haydn, it fell to Alban Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra to deliver the orchestral goods in abundance, and indeed one wondered whether any more players could possibly be crammed onto the platform. Here Rattle brought out both the lyricism and the violence in the score, the final ‘March’ especially shattering in its intensity.

Yet the eardrums survived, and following the interval came Brett Dean’s marvellously evocative Komarov’s Fall, a companion piece to Holst’s The Planets and a tribute to the first astronaut to die in space, Vladimir Komarov. Dean’s mastery of tone colour is dazzling, string harmonics and rustling silver foil complementing a distinctive use of percussion. Rattle and the Berliners first performed this work in 2006, and their familiarity with the score was made obvious by the subtlety and confidence with which it was brought to life.

The Brahms was sublime, with Rattle’s overt theatricality never marring absolute clarity of line and orchestral balance; the players too, though flawless of ensemble, allowed their individuality to manifest itself fully. An encore the ‘Pas de deux’ from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker was the perfect icing on the cake.

The second concert featured another orchestral showcase, Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, which was despatched with such ferocious energy and phenomenal technical control, especially from the strings and woodwinds, that there seemed nowhere to go afterwards. But Rattle and the orchestra had a few more tricks up their collective sleeve, as was evidenced by a Mahler 1 of great warmth, power and psychological insight. The joys and tensions of the first movement; the robust rusticity of the second; the funereal exuberance of the third; the forbidding struggles of the fourth: all were realised with a formidable combination of cerebral muscularity and sheer abandonment, with Rattle transformed on the podium into a demonic presence. No wonder the audience was unable to restrain itself at the end, bursting forth with cheering and applause such as I’ve never heard in the Perth Concert Hall.

The next day Rattle and the orchestra left Perth bound for Sydney, the only other city in Australia to benefit from this historic visit, one of the most significant cultural events this country has seen.

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