The Berlin Philharmonic
With a performance of Beethoven and Mahler Symphonies, the German orchestra proved again why it's one of the best in the world
‘Was it a pigeon?’ I asked the security guard, as he connected the last two barriers, cordoning off the main entrance to the Royal Albert Hall. ‘Well it could have been,’ he replied, looking first towards the roof and then at the sizeable bits of yellow masonry that appeared to have dropped from it, scattering like coins across a crime scene. ‘But it would have to have been a very heavy pigeon.’
On any other evening, an obese pigeon – and a collapsing wall – might have been an omen, but on Friday in the lead-up to the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of Beethoven's Fourth Symphony and Mahler's First the scene was quickly forgotten. ‘Nobody was injured,’ smiled the press officer at the ticket desk, sweeping us towards our seats.
It felt like the First Night all over again: critics from every leading newspaper took to the stalls; no available space in the hall was left unfilled; anticipation, like birds, hung heavily in the air. Enter, Sir Simon Rattle.
Superlatives are overused in music journalism – they should be saved for evenings like these. For if ever we had needed proof that the Berlin Philharmonic is one of the greatest orchestras in the world then it was to be found here: in the arresting resonance of the strings that carried us into the Beethoven, the majestic delivery of its third movement and breath-taking agility in the last.
And then the Mahler – an intense journey through darkness and light, in which effortless shifts of tempo, dynamics and colour were triggered by only the smallest of gestures from Rattle. What’s extraordinary about the Berlin ensemble is not just their clarity of sound, nor their crisp articulation, but the level of freedom with which the players move as one, each tracking the other like swallows in flight.
Which brings me back to the obese pigeon. A performance of this calibre is not for the casual promenader: you have to practically kill to get a ticket, there is no applause between movements and there are no frivolous encores at the end of the show (just clapping, even after the orchestra has left the stage). So I had come prepared for enthusiasts, but how could I have guessed I would be sitting next to a fan who would behave like a twitcher on amphetamines?
It began with just a nod of the head, catching my attention because it was a gesture of anticipation – not on, after, but before the downbeat had arrived. Then the right hand, parted expressively from the lap as though in preparation for a plié. And then, with the onset of the first real climax, the first full-faced headbutt – the first of many. This was armchair conducting with zip.
But it was only with the appearance of the binoculars, repeatedly clasped to the eyes in an apparent frenzy of curiosity – as though anticipating the arrival of a rare bird never before seen upon these shores – that the full significance of the evening’s events became clear: the falling masonry… the twitcher… the Proms Pigeon… Beware!
Prom 65: Beethoven: Symphony No. 4; Mahler: Symphony No. 1
Berlin Philharmonic/Sir Simon Rattle
Nick Shave is a freelance music writer, critic, and contributing editor to BBC Music Magazine. He has spent many happy summers reviewing the Proms, but is still prone to a loss of bearings when choosing the quickest way round the Royal Albert Hall.