This major four concert residence by one of the world's top orchestras was always going to be a hot ticket, more or less selling out promptly after the tickets first went on sale way back in December 2009. To ease the cost of bringing them, the concerts have been split between three halls at two venues. Despite a programme that wasn't the most obviously bankable, featuring an obscure Mahler chamber work and two pieces by Schoenberg, there was still a lengthy queue of hopefuls awaiting any returns at the Southbank Centre's Queen Elizabeth Hall. Inside, those who had secured a ticket included Mark Elder and Mitsuko Uchida (not to mention Simon Rattle, whose presence was only required on stage for the final work, though no doubt he didn't actually have to buy his ticket).
The first half featured a quartet drawn from the orchestra: Guy Braunstein and Christoph Streuli (violin), Amihai Grosz (viola) and Ludwig Quandt (cello). They began with Schubert's D703, all that remains or an uncompleted quartet. After a start that was perhaps not quite so assured as it might have been, they delivered a strong and intense reading. However, as is often the case with such fragments, it didn't entirely satisfy.
Schoenberg's second quartet which followed was much more special. Actually, quartet is something of a misnomer given it has a fifth part for soprano. They gave a performance full of drama and intensity, qualities Anna Prohaska shared when she joined them for the last two movements. Both the quality of her voice and her fine stage presence left me wanting to see her on the opera stage. All in all, it was very compelling.
The second half opened with another oddity: Mahler's quartet movement in A minor for piano and strings (Bishara Harouni joining the trio on stage). Hearing it cold, your first thought might not be of Mahler, though certainly there are heavy echos of romantic composers. The opening piano passages are particular emotive. They played it well, but it seemed a little bit like Mahler was trying too hard to fit too much into a single movement. Then again, he was only sixteen when he wrote it, so is perhaps due a little slack. Still, for a Mahler fan used mainly to hearing big symphonies or orchestral songs, it was an interesting insight.
They had probably saved the best until last though. While still well short of the full orchestra, with just single strings and a healthy range of winds (including both cor and oboe along with three clarinets and a contrabassoon), Schoenberg's 1st chamber symphony was big enough to justify the presence of a conductor. Together they gave it an intense performance, at times seeming to overflow with energy and dynamism. The range of instruments, playing of the excellent calibre one would expect, gave a rich and interesting sound. Rattle, rightly recognising that the members of the orchestra had been the stars of the evening, stood modestly to the back and let Braunstein lead the bows.
A solid start to the series then, but the best is hopefully yet to come. In particular, being a fan of Rattle's recordings of both, I can't wait for Schubert's great C major symphony at the Barbican on Tuesday and Mahler's epic 3rd which finishes the visit on Wednesday back at the Southbank.