Berlin Philharmonic at Davies Hall

Expanding virtues

Starting a concert with the ecstatically triumphant notes of Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger promises an exciting evening for any concertgoer, and on Saturday that’s what Music Director Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic delivered in San Francisco’s Davies Hall. The Berlin Phil has been a standard for orchestral excellence from the early 20th century and has been shaped by some of the world’s great conductors, including Hans von Bülow, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert van Karajan, who directed the orchestra for 35 years.

Things have changed radically from the days of van Karajan when the orchestra was an all-male ensemble of Teutonic virtues. Its virtues now encompass the international, the feminine and the modern, but it hasn’t lost its polished sound or power: that power now has a more dazzling quality. Sir Simon has added a touch of glamour while abandoning some of the niceties of dignified grandeur.

The overall sound of the orchestra is full and opulent, a shade on the muscular side, but resoundingly balanced. The colors of the orchestra are vast and various, and that served Saturday night’s program well. In the Wagner, balance creates the gush that is characteristic of the composer’s overall sound, up from which rise short figurations of solo instruments. The Prelude could easily slip into the brash, but, with the lower strings holding firm and the woodwinds exalting clarity, it became simply massive: rising and falling with the Wagnerian sense of dynamics that mirrors breathing but evokes a seething eroticism.

And the orchestra was right there with lyricism when needed. Only at one point did the lower brass seem a little too fortissimo, discarding blend and riding above the rest of the orchestra.

What was most striking about the Wagner and the Schoenberg that followed was the sense of urgency that the musicians presented: an energy bordering on the eager. This was remarkable in contrast to Rattle’s conducting style, which was restrained: a lifted hand here, a gesture there, a little shaking, a well-gripped baton. Lots must happen in rehearsal.

Intensity continued to pursue us as the orchestra closed the first half of the concert with Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9b, using the 1935 full orchestral revision of the 1907 work for 15 instruments. Throughout the many dynamic complexities of the Schoenberg, the orchestra maintained the piece’s sense of restlessness, imparting a feeling of excitement through sustained tension.

The work is based on the interval of the fourth, both harmonically and melodically, which seemed most vivid in the woodwinds and brass sections, as they poured forth a distinctly modern and exotic sound. Especially impressive was the orchestra’s ability to maintain a richness of color in the pianissimo passages, maintaining the tonal texture of the instruments.

The sweetness of Brahms

In the concert’s second half, the orchestra presented Brahms’ Symphony No. 2. This was, perhaps, not the best choice after the rousing first half, but the Berlin Philharmonic has just released all four Brahms symphonies in a boxed set and presenting the works makes marketing sense. And so, I found myself having to adjust, to calm down, to remember that this is Brahms and the Second symphony must be listened to on its own terms: a sweeping lyrical sweetness and grace that grows into triumphal pastoralism.

From that standpoint, the orchestra put oomph into it: with brilliant soloist and ensemble playing and some impressive dynamic extremes, especially in the final outburst of the finale.

Perhaps you’d like to tune in to the Berlin Philharmonic in the future but find the 6,000-mile distance daunting. Rattle has made it possible through his Digital Concert Hall (, which streams live concerts as well as holds an archive of past performances and documentaries. The site also provides an educational program, Zukunft@BPhil, which introduces young people to classical music.

—Jaime Robles