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An event of the soul

Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic.

Although billed as separate concerts, the Berlin Philharmonic's two Proms this year formed a single musical gesture. Friday's Beethoven and Mahler glanced ahead to Saturday's Wagner and Strauss; but what of Berg, Schoenberg and Webern - the second-half cuckoos in the musical nest? Rattle urged his audience to treat these Second Viennese experiments as, "Mahler's imaginary Eleventh Symphony", changing not only the way we listened, but the nature of the music itself.

Restored from wilful contrarian angst to a place within the continuum of the German musical tradition, the orchestral colours so often suppressed in this repertoire emerged, timidly at first in Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces, but with increasing conviction through Webern's Six Pieces for Orchestra and finally Berg's autobiographically charged Three Orchestral Pieces.

The quality of the hush in the Royal Albert Hall - disappointingly fragile this season - was testimony to the active listening taking place, as we re-tuned our ears and expectations of this "difficult" music. The enormous orchestral forces (including quintuple woodwind and six horns) spoke of the textural generosity of Schoenberg's early music - unmoored from symphonic structure, but not yet pledged to the ascetic self-denial of 12-tone serialism, "an ever-changing, unbroken succession of colours, rhythms and moods", as the composer himself described it.

Rattle's principal achievement with the Berlin Philharmonic has been fostering a blend of sound. Among woodwind and brass particularly, the bright, forward character of the Karajan/Abbado eras has been replaced with a more unified web, in which even the deliberately grotesque solo contortions of Vorgefuhle retained their relationship to the whole. Similarly in Das obligate Rezitativ, the macabre little touches - a mournful bassoon, a chatty viola crushed underfoot by brass - sustained a dialogue with the greater textural tectonics of the movement.

The Webern that followed presented something of a problem to the BBC, whose coloured onstage screens change to reflect the mood of each piece. There was blue for Strauss's Four Last Songs, fiery red for Berg, but Webern elicited such a confused mess of colours that it was clear that BBC officials were at a loss as to what we were supposed to be thinking or feeling. Fortunately the same was not true of the orchestra, who guided us through its inscrutable textures, articulating with precision the shift from muted nullity - a side-drum fluttering vainly against the oppressive hush - to a pianissimo acceptance and redemption.

Rounding-out the triptych, and pushing beyond stillness into rage, was Berg's densely-scored Three Orchestral Pieces. Here at last abortive melodies gave a focus to the Berlin Philharmonic's astonishing string section, their massed lyricism struggling against outbursts from solo strings and wind. The shocking conclusion, Paul Griffiths' "catastrophe in sound", attacked the hall, its shattering hammer blows proclaiming themselves the true heirs of Mahler, the evening's ghostly ancestor.

Famously described by Nietsche as "an event of the soul", the Act I Prelude from Wagner's Parsifal was a bold opening. The unison of the first phrase is a skeleton on which the smallest of deviations shows up as a tumorous growth, and unfortunately strings and wind never quite agreed on their rhythmic contours, unsettling the work's unearthly aspirations with all-too human error. There is no doubt that the Royal Albert Hall can take the slow pace set by Rattle here, but equally little doubt that this was the cause of the uncertainty, from which we never quite recovered.

Slow speeds also characterised Strauss's Four Last Songs, but here their poise was absolute. Karita Mattila, though hardly among the largest of Strauss voices, has a roundness and inhaled ease to her singing that suits the intimacy of these settings, and was matched tone for tone by the extraordinarily backlit sound Rattle drew from his players. Comfortable as a texture among the orchestra, Mattila relied on the audience's familiarity with the work, risking a delicate, self-abnegating performance that only occasionally flared forth into full vocal bloom. Such moments - the "bathed in light" of Fruhling, the final ecstatic verse of Beim Schlafengehen - had all the sheen that Wagner's Grail Theme had lacked: moments of pure and generous beauty in a concert of harder-won, if no less substantial, pleasures.