Sir Simon Rattle in London

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Mahler's Symphony No. 3 provided an unforgettable finish to the Berlin Philharmonic's series in the British capital

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It was an inspired idea for the Barbican and South Bank to pool resources for these imposing ‘London Concerts’ by Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic: the Arts may be operating in straitened times, but this series shouted confidence and high ambition.

And that confidence was vindicated with immediate sell-outs, proving just what a thirst there is in the capital for great orchestral performance. The concerts generated an atmosphere akin to the Proms, no mean feat on the dreariest chain of wet nights in February.

The programming shone with that same ambition and seriousness of purpose: first the classiest children’s concert imaginable played with panache by the orchestra’s cello section. Then an intriguing series of journeys in, around and beyond Mahler featuring Haydn, Schubert, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Wolf and Brahms, and Toshio Hosokawa.

The crowning glory came on Wednesday night at the Royal Festival Hall – Mahler’s epic Symphony No. 3. We were led gently into that peculiarly Viennese aesthetic of ultra-folksy, ultra-sophistication first with Brahms’s part-song The full tones of the harp resound which combines the heavenly Berlin horns with harp and a female chorus of almost grotesque shrill sweetness. Wolf’s Elfenlied, sung with fine clarity by soprano Anke Herrmann went deeper into that sinister fairy-tale world of sour enchantments.

Beside these, the Symphony’s opening, marked 'strong and decisive', came like a blast of fresh air. Mahler’s intention to embrace the natural world comes through as powerfully in its non-musical elements as its lyric: here the toneless, dull thud of drums had the quality of the wind’s roar, sul tasto strings (played with the bow near the fingerboard) were like dying breaths, flutes rasped and ‘Pan’s Awakening’ on trombone was harsh and blunt. But these extraordinary noises gave the lavish orchestrations yet more luminous beauty in contrast: this is an orchestra that can shine in the refurbished acoustics of the Festival Hall like no other. It’s still an exposing acoustic, but there was nothing to expose here but sheer brilliance, mind-blowing virtuosity.

After a masterfully-handled first movement, the Menuet tripped in with exquisite, fluid legato; in the Scherzando, that bizarre mix of the sublime slashed with comedy, time stood still as the off-stage trumpet sang its lonesome song. A palpable shudder went through the audience: the sound of that distant trumpet here was pure heartbreak. The visionary contralto of Natalie Stutzman, sitting within the orchestra, emerged at first as a burnished, almost disembodied tone in the mysterious nocturne, with its slithering oboe bird calls. The boys of Eltham College made Bimm Bamm! salt-fresh and cheery. Only a great conductor can ignite that flaming crescendo towards the end of the ravishing finale, let it die and glow again one last time with such ineffable rightness.

Rattle has been accused by other critics of over-controlling, of micro-managing the orchestral sound, of trying to realise every single one of Mahler’s myriad dynamic markings (what crime there is in that, dare I ask – isn’t that what he’s there for?). There’s no doubt this was a performance of exhausting tension and rare precision: I can’t remember the work ever seeming so short; there wasn’t a bar that was less than riveting. But was it moving? A standing audience clearly felt, as I did, that this was a performance the like of which they had never heard before.

Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine