Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Kulwinder Singh-Rai on the Berliner Philharmoniker & Sir Simon Rattle

Ask The Audience Arcana at the Proms
kulwinder-singh-raiThis is the latest in the series where Arcana invites a friend to a Prom who does not normally listen to classical music. In an interview after the concert each will share their musical upbringing and their thoughts on the concert – whether good or bad! Here, Kulwinder Singh-Rai (above) gives his thoughts on Prom 64.

Berliner Philharmoniker / Sir Simon Rattle

Boulez Éclat (1965); Mahler Symphony no.7 (1904-05)

You can watch this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

Arcana: Kulwinder, what was your musical upbringing?

I listen to a lot of Bhangra music, Punjabi music and hip hop. Being born in the city of Birmingham I would experience a lot of dancehall and bashment music, but always something with a real beat to it. All the genres I’ve mentioned have got a real strong beat to their music. I listen to a lot of music in the car, so would listen to a lot of music with a beat there, and from my phone.

I grew up with what was on the radio, in houses and at parties I went to. Even when I was a student, you would hang around people who liked similar music to you. So I didn’t have much contact with classical music!

Did you have much contact with Indian classical music?

Not then, but recently one of my friends is an Indian classical musician, and I find that music very relaxing and soothing. That is something that I have appreciated, listening to music with silence in it, which is quite a new experience!

Could you name three musical acts you love, and why you love them?

That’s difficult, as it varies from day to day! It’s what with me at the time, so it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re groundbreaking. What you have is a snapshot of me now, really – in a month’s time it would be totally different stuff! Currently I would say Diljit Dosanjh, who’s pretty big in Punjabi popular music. From pop music I like Drake, because again it has a really good beat and varies a lot.

I’m trying to think of what I play in the car, although when I’m in the workplace I do play some calmer stuff. (looks at phone) I don’t play any pop music at work, especially when I’m doing reports and need something to calm me down. I just go by what I like rather than the name, and these are quite old recordings. (shows Arcana Glenn Gould plays Mozart). It’s because I need something to keep me steady at work, and I would listen to it on headphones.

What has been your experience of classical music so far?

All the famous adverts really. I’ve been to two classical concerts before, and only recently. I think this is the third, but previously I went to see a concert at the Royal Festival Hall – Messiah I think it was, with a choir, and we were really high up. It was uplifting and you were whistling tunes for the next few days at work!

How did you rate your first Proms experience?

It was good to see the crowd there, because the only other crowds I really experience are at football matches. It was a similar kind of experience in that sense, though a lot more interesting than the last match I went to! (Kulwinder is a West Bromwich Albion season ticket holder, and the last game he was an interminable goalless draw with Middlesbrough! – ed)

You have some chants and jeering there obviously, but it’s similar – the crowd gathered around, affiliation to the team – and so it was very enjoyable. I was surprised by how mixed the audience was, not all middle class – and the dress sense. The guy next to me could easily have been from a park bench! So it was a lot more accessible than I thought it would be, which was really good.

What did you think of the Boulez?

I must admit I didn’t really get into that. It finished so quickly that I can’t remember much of it. It was early in the concert and I hadn’t really acclimatised to it, and I was expecting more of a build up like you normally get. There wasn’t really time to do that, so I can’t remember a great deal. It could be that the other piece was so intense that it washed away the memory.

And the Mahler?

I thought it was very emotional, which was a good thing. I watch different things like the conductor to keep my attention, but I would say it was very convincing and I was deeply engrossed in it. If I heard it again I would have more thoughts and pictures about the story I think, but it drew you into the music and you could have drawn more into the narrative if there was a more obvious one.

I would say I felt relaxed but alert, if you know what I mean. Calm but the music was quite surprising sometimes – some of what happened in the middle I would expect to happen at the end. Normally I would expect a crash at the end and you would expect them to stop, but here it carried on.

Would you change anything about the experience?

No I don’t think so. It’s very popular, so obviously people are aware of it with the queues to get in. Maybe if they moved it around a bit, more outside of London – bringing it to other cities – it would work! Because it’s my first one I can’t think too much of that but I thought the venue was great, and the audience were great as well – very quiet and paid attention.

Would you go again?

I would definitely go again. Not having been bought up with classical music it’s all new to me, so I’m looking as a child at the different sounds and instruments. Maybe if it was some vocal music I would be more likely to go, but either / or is doable!

Verdict: SUCCESS


BBC Proms 2016 – Berliner Philharmoniker & Sir Simon Rattle: Mahler Symphony no.7


Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker in Mahler‘s Symphony no.7 (c) Chris Christodoulou

Prom 64; Royal Albert Hall, 2 September 2016

You can watch this Prom on the BBC iPlayer

Mahler is the composer Sir Simon Rattle was born to conduct. That may sound like a grandiose statement, but for four decades now Rattle has been immersed in the composer’s music. Now he is at the top of the musical pile, on the verge of taking over the London Symphony Orchestra job next year, and this Prom was another opportunity to appraise the results of his tenure – not always easy – with the Berlin Philharmonic.

The results were little short of spectacular. To see the Berlin Philharmonic in the flesh is to witness the pinnacle of orchestral playing, especially when the woodwind principals are soloists in their own right – flautist Emmanuel Pahud, clarinetist Andreas Ottensamer and oboist Albrecht Mayer to name but three.

All were integral to a performance of Mahler’s Symphony no.7 that will live long in the memory. The work is often regarded as problematic, and sprawling, but in this performance Rattle and his charges brought compelling characterisation to the central movements in particular.

In the right performance the work still sounds remarkably modern given its 1913 composition date, using sonorities composers of today would struggle to create. Mahler writes two Nachtmusik movements, placed two and four in the five-movement structure, and here it felt as though we had stepped unwittingly into a magical garden in the heat of summer.

The night time flying bodies were out in force, realised through music that was at turns macabre, enchanting or just downright weird – allusions to the Habañera could be detected in the second movement. The mandolin and guitar in the fourth movement were odd in the extreme but also gave prime examples of Mahler’s amazing scoring, able to reduce a symphony orchestra of 110 from ear splitting climaxes to near-silent conversation in the blink of an eye.


Horn player Stefan Dohr was rightly cheered for his contribution to the first Nachtmusik, a recurring folk-like motif that set the outdoor tone beautifully. The first movement was an invigorating Alpine march, with warmer moments when the violins swept into the second main theme, and a colder, steely approach when the march took a greater hold. The scherzo, placed third, had no such let-up, and was a macabre dance into the darker areas of the mind.

This undercurrent followed the music to the end, for although the last movement was largely jubilant, and let timpanist Rainer Seegers off the hook with a riotous opening solo, it frequently looked into the unknown. Nowhere was this more evident than the approach to the end, Rattle making sure the brief but significant pause and harmonic detour was signposted.

Rattle is often accused of micro managing Mahler but here his interventions were both instinctive and stylish, followed to a letter by his superb orchestra. The audience hung on their every note, and although some of Mahler’s phrases and turns of foot are difficult to follow and comprehend, this account was as strong and sweeping as any.

By way of a palette cleanser, Rattle and some of his charges began with the 1965 piece Éclat by Pierre Boulez. This was an exercise in texture and resonance, Boulez using instruments primarily for their reverberant qualities. It was indeed a vibrant set of sounds, but they were occasionally difficult to connect – purely because of the anticipation of the Mahler to follow and the exuberance of the crowd. We were there to see a memorable performance – and Rattle duly delivered. Berlin’s loss will most definitely be London’s gain.

Ben Hogwood

Rattle conducts Sibelius – Symphony no.7

Rattle conducts Sibelius – Symphony no.7, in the last of a three-concert residency from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, performing all the composer’s symphonies


Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle – Barbican Hall, live on BBC Radio 3, 12 February 2015.

Listening link (opens in a new window):

on the iPlayer until 13 March


For those unable to hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify link. Sir Simon has not recorded this piece with the Berlin Philharmonic, but this is a recording he made with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for EMI (track 6):


What’s the music?

(c) Brian Hogwood

Sibelius – Symphony no.7 in C major, Op.105 (1924) (22 minutes)

What about the music?

This symphony is a remarkable piece of work that reveals more and more with each subsequent listen. Initially it can seem too simple in its melodic material or too dense in the sheer amount of ideas, but in fact it is an amazingly self-contained unit, like a single long melody lasting for just over twenty minutes.

Sibelius worked on it at the same time as his Sixth Symphony, hence the reason for Rattle performing the two together without a break – but the recommendation (from here at least!) is to make the most of each piece on separate terms.

In my mind’s eye I often feel as though this piece is a seascape, with the spray almost tangible to the touch. The music is brooding at times, and its complex harmonies can twist the human response, but it is an overwhelmingly positive way in which to finish a symphonic cycle. And how better to finish than with a C major chord, regarded as the purest in all music?

Performance verdict

Rattle’s interpretation of the Seventh would appear to be spot-on tempo-wise, and as is the conductor’s wont it picks apart the structure to highlight all the different themes the composer uses – yet is always moving forward to the next musical ‘signpost’.

In each of the three occurrences of the trombone theme he stresses its heroic quality, and the overall impression of the symphony is a positive, resilient one.

What should I listen out for?

The symphony is in a single section, and though it is possible to break it in to constituent parts, it is so compressed and tightly bound together that is it best to listen to it as a single whole.

1:31:24 – a single timpani roll ushers in an ascending scale on the lower strings. Already the music is noticeably broader than the Sixth Symphony.

1:32:13 – the wind play a relatively distant figure that assumes great importance as the symphony progresses.

1:36:43 – the strings swell to a rousing theme on the trombones, just about rising above the whole orchestra.

1:41:00 – now the music is speeding up, with the strings adopting a similar figure to that found in faster moments of the Sixth Symphony.

1:41:52 – the swirl of the violins gets gradually slower, until 1:42:11, where the trombones return with their tune, now more isolated.

1:43:43 – the quicker theme returns on the woodwind.

1:48:21 – the ascending scale from the opening of the work simmers, but there is a tension between two different speeds before the trombone theme returns at 1:48:40.

1:51:43 – the final section, which ends with what seems the simplest resolution at 1:53:02.

Want to hear more?

After the Symphony no.7 – if you’re on Spotify – keep listening and you will hear another of Sibelius’s orchestral ‘tone poems’ – that is, an orchestral piece that describes a particular story or event. This one, Nightride and Sunrise, is not so well known, but is a descriptive work that draws on an unknown sequence of events for the composer.

For more concerts click here

Rattle conducts Sibelius – Symphony no.6

Rattle conducts Sibelius – Symphony no.6, in the last of a three-concert residency from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, performing all the composer’s symphonies


Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle – Barbican Hall, live on BBC Radio 3, 12 February 2015.

Listening link (opens in a new window):

on the iPlayer until 13 March


For those unable to hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify link. Although Sir Simon has recorded the first symphony, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, I could not find this for listening. I have therefore inserted a ‘replacement’ version with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä on BIS.


What’s the music?


Sibelius – Symphonyno.6 in D minor, Op.104 (1923) (30 minutes)

What about the music?

The Sixth is often glossed over in the course of the Sibelius symphony cycle, coming as it does between the very popular Fifth and Seventh – but repeated study reveals that musically it is the ideal complement to them both.

The composer himself said it reminded him of ‘the scent of the first snow’, or even, in a wonderful quote, ‘Whereas most other modern composers are engaged in manufacturing cocktails of every hue and description, I offer the public pure cold water’.

That crisp air is evident right from the beginning of the music, and indeed it is more a succession of feelings rather than obvious tunes that shape the impact of the work. The compact scale of the orchestra recalls the Symphony no.3, but if anything Sibelius goes further in his economical use of the forces available.

In an interview on the radio prior to this performance Sir Simon Rattle draws attention to the panning of the composer’s symphonies by such lofty figures as Theodor Adorno, who regarded him as ‘the worst composer ever’. Each to their own, I suppose, but one listen even to this lesser known symphony shows this is absolutely not the case!’

Rattle chooses to perform the Sixth and Seventh together, without a break, so if you want to hear them individually (which I personally prefer!) you will have to stop listening quickly at 1:31:20.

Performance verdict

This is a brilliantly played and ideally paced account of the Sixth, to my ears, one that captures the outdoors, the listener feeling as though they are stood at an open door catching the air.

The third movement Scherzo is particularly thrilling, but it is the nuances and detail that Rattle captures within the score that ensure each phrase and unit is brought to life.

What should I listen out for?

First movement (marked Allegro molto moderato) (fast but very moderately so)

1:01:45 – immediately there is a serene air to the strings, a cool but bright and refreshing sound. Because the instruments are high the music is weightless, the depth of the orchestra only really heard just over two minutes in.

1:06:25 – a wispy figure winds its way up from the lower strings, the energy levels slightly raised. This leads to a bright, chirpy sequence from the woodwind with more incisive rhythms.

1:09:38 – what feels like a cold wind blows in from the strings and timpani, darkening the music. The end arrives quickly just over a minute later.

Second movement (marked Allegro moderato) (moderately fast)

1:11:01 – a clear beginning to this movement from the woodwind. Flutes and clarinets are prominent in this movement and indeed the whole symphony.

1:12:48 – at this point the music does not have an obvious base, moving around quite quickly with small fragments of melody that are related but seem not to settle, like birds staying on the wing.

1:16:51 – the music labours a bit before the end before quickly breaking up. It is remarkable that Sibelius signs off a piece of music in this abrupt way, effectively adding to his music a firm full stop and a line underneath.

Third movement (marked Poco vivace) (a little lively)

1:17:10 – with Sibelius’s picture of the first snow in mind, this is perhaps the brisk wind on which the snow arrives. Strings swirl around before more detached rhythms assert themselves, and then the brass and timpani add extra depth with sweeping brush strokes.

One of the shortest sections of a Sibelius symphony, this is over in a flash, using a rhythm that rather recalls Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.

Fourth movement (marked Allegro molto) (very brisk)

1:20:53 – Once again we have an open orchestral sound, with beautifully phrased woodwind figures.

1:22:45 – the strings bring a more vigorous episode into play, harking back to the mood of the previous movement. Despite its positive mood the music still feels restless and unable to settle for long – until 1:23:52, where it takes a stronger root and now has quite a punch through the weight of the string section. There are now some more obvious motifs from the violins in particular.

1:28:16 – a slightly slower and more thoughtful passage from the strings, who come into play much more in this movement.

1:30:55 – the music slows to a pensive close.

Want to hear more?

A good companion piece to the Symphony no.6 is Tapiola, one of Sibelius’s last works – a descriptive piece based on a forest spirit that has an uncannily vivid description of what feels like a passing snow storm.

You can hear it on Spotify here (track 6):

For more concerts click here

Rattle conducts Sibelius – Symphony no.5

Rattle conducts Sibelius – Symphony no.5, in the last of a three-concert residency from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, performing all the composer’s symphonies


Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle – Barbican Hall, live on BBC Radio 3, 12 February 2015.

Listening link (opens in a new window):

on the iPlayer until 13 March


For those unable to hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify link. Although Sir Simon has recorded the first symphony, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, I could not find this for listening. I have therefore inserted a ‘replacement’ version with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for EMI (from track 4):


What’s the music?


Sibelius – Symphony no.5 in E flat major, Op.82 (original version 1915, revised by 1919) (31 minutes)

What about the music?

This – quite simply – is one of the greatest symphonies of the 20th or any century. It is also one of Sibelius’ best known and loved works, being in a sense the sunrise to the Fourth Symphony’s darkness.

The construction of the first movement has occupied musical commentators for nearly a century now, debating its structure, and how Sibelius joins the music seamlessly from one section to another. All we need to know for now is that this wonderfully positive music.
Sir Simon Rattle speaks of this piece as offering a ‘revolution of rhythm and movement’, and saying how its ability to grow at a steady period of intensity is ‘not from any Western culture’. He likens it to Indonesian or Balinese music, though it is unlikely Sibelius would have heard much if any of these cultures.

The density of the music is striking, but this is not difficult music to listen to – rather it is wide open, a celebration of nature and the outdoors. In the third movement Sibelius specifically celebrates the swans, recalling an instance where he saw a flock of them take flight at once, but also reproducing their calls in music.

Performance verdict

The playing of the Berlin Philharmonic is beyond criticism in this Fifth, but now and again questions are raised as to how much the music is actually instinctive for them, for this is music they do not often play (putting my snobby hat on, I would say I prefer this piece given by a Finnish orchestra!)

Rattle gives everything to his interpretation, of that there is no doubt, but there are some moments where the speed drags and the momentum of the music is harmed.

This issue comes up most prominently right near the end, as the tempo slows – but at no point do the orchestra lose the conviction of Rattle’s thoughts, and the ending itself is thoroughly convincing.

What should I listen out for?

First movement (which has a whole host of tempo markings)

4:25 – the wide open textures of the music are immediately obvious in themes from horn and woodwind. A serene, outdoor atmosphere is set.

5:50 – the violins interject with a note that raises the possibility of the music accelerating. There are almost dual speeds at this point, with some fast moving music and some slow. This creates a wide impression of space.

6:44 – a syncopated theme on the violins. All the time the music is building and pressing forward. Still the music builds, the violins coming to the fore – like birds taking off.

11:25 – a big, hugely affirmative statement on unison strings

12:29 – the wonderful climax to this movement, where we hear the theme from the opening on the brass. At this point Sibelius exacts a wondrous transition into a faster section, seemingly without breaking stride.

13:29 – a tangible shift here, back to the ‘home key’* – and a terrific gathering of momentum.

16:45 – the timpani hit E flat and start a whirlwind of phrases all around this note, the music gathering tremendous excitement before rushing headlong over the edge of the cliff at 17:20.

Second movement (again a whole host of tempo markings)

17:48 – the woodwind begin an attractive movement that once again sounds as if from outdoors. The sonorities of the Berlin Philharmonic woodwind in this section are especially beautiful. The flute theme at the beginning forms the basis of the whole movement, which is a theme and variations*

20:42 – a lush and affectionate reference to the woodwind’s theme from the strings. The orchestral texture remains wide open, and the music increases in energy. The same five-note rhythmic figure dominates this movement (from 21:43)

The music speeds up considerable before Rattle puts the brakes on at 23:18. Gradually we arrive at a slow and peaceful close.

Third movement (once more a whole host of tempo markings)

26:14 – a drum roll takes us immediately back to the mood of the first movement, with rushing strings giving the impression of trees flying past on a fast journey.

27:28 – the horns ring out in a theme closely related to the first one of the first movement. Here the mood is more regal.

30:43 – now the music is much quieter and more mysterious. The shimmering violins make reference to the horn theme described previously, like ripples on a lake. Then the music slows rather.

Rattle now slows the music considerably, and the theme sounds again, this time on trumpets at 32:35. The full power of the orchestra gathers again to the ‘home key’:

34:50 – a series of six massive chords end the symphony

Want to hear more?

After the Symphony no.5, the best next port of call is the next in the symphonic cycle, the Sixth – coming up in this series.


*Home key – the base of the music – that is, the note on which the whole of a piece is based. The music may journey a considerable distance from this note, but if a piece is said to be ‘in E flat’, then it would normally be expected to start and finish with music based on those notes.

*Theme and variations – a common tactic in classical music, to introduce a theme and then construct a set of different themes that derive from it.

For more concerts click here