Understated success: Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

Sibelius Symphony No. 3 in C, Op. 52
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47
Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63

Simon Rattle conductor
Leonidas Kavakos violin
The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra


Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra kicked off their 2015 season with the opening of their Sibelius cycle on Tuesday night. For a newbie in Berlin, this golden trio of a world-leading conductor, orchestra and venue came with high expectations. But the programme was not a straightforward one. Sibelius’ Third Symphony has been described as anti-monumental. Meanwhile, his Fourth is paradoxically both his most modern composition and his protest against the radical atonal music that was being put forward by Schoenberg and his followers.


In between these contradictory works, however, was Sibelius’ hugely melodic Violin Concerto. The piece requires dazzling virtuosity, yet it did not become a platform for violinist Leonidas Kavakos to show-off. Dressed in a simple black shirt and trousers, he was actually more plainly dressed than the orchestral players dressed in tails. With no desire to be the centre of attention, Kavakos’ only concern was playing the violin. Yet this did not make his performance any less captivating. Following a barely-there opening from the Berlin Phil’s strings, Kavakos’ singing melody immediately created a feeling of a great distance. His melodies transcended his playing on stage. Attention was on the music, not on who was playing it. Even during the first movement’s breath-taking cadenza with its memorizing finger acrobatics, Kavakos’ struggles were never melodramatic.

Kavakos was the ideal soloist for Sibelius’ Violin Concerto. He was engaging but never indulgent. Rattle too was careful to avoid indulgence in the Third and Fourth Symphonies. Though the Third’s melodicism is appealing, it is not a symphony of extravagance. Rattle’s build-ups were gradual, and he never went overboard with them. Even the final closing culmination  avoided being overdone.

The work nonetheless allowed the Berlin Phil to exhibit their excellent ensemble playing and intimate relationship with their chief conductor. This worked in a number of ways during the first movement. By holding onto every slightest gesture from Rattle, the strings achieved absolute delicateness. Yet in a later pizzicato section however, Rattle took a step back, letting the strings show-off their faultless precision.

Rattle’s relationships with the Berlin Phil is one of trust, and he was confident in giving cellist Bruno Delepelaire the lead during his solo in the first movement of Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony. Delepelaire’s playing was poised. With his naturally warm sound, he found the right balance between projecting and being an extension of the orchestra.

Most striking in the Fourth Symphony however, was the tragic third movement. The unison strings with their simple rising line had all its expression wrung from it by Rattle. This same rising line was repeated across various instruments, creating a horrible feeling of being unable to escape, or of constantly reaching upwards but painfully and hopelessly failing to catch what was trying to be reached. Rattle dived straight into the jollier fourth movement, but this made it even more harrowing. With no time in to recover, it was impossible to break from the third movement’s anguish. The new joy in the final movement was literally unbelievable, and all the more meaningful because of it.

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