sat 20/01/2018

Kožená, LSO, Rattle, Barbican Hall review – springing surprises from Schubert and Rameau | reviews, news & interviews

Kožená, LSO, Rattle, Barbican Hall review – springing surprises from Schubert and Rameau

Kožená, LSO, Rattle, Barbican Hall review – springing surprises from Schubert and Rameau

A fresh attitude yields revelation in a familiar symphony

Master of all he surveys: Sir Simon Rattle, finding an unlikely home for Rameau in the Barbican Hall© Doug Peters/PA Wire

Cheers and huzzahs greeted the arrival of Sir Simon Rattle on the Barbican stage last night before the London Symphony Orchestra had even played a note. The 10-day festivities to open his tenure as principal conductor evidently worked a treat. The hall was full for a lengthy and – on the surface of it – unlikely splicing of Austrian Romantic angst with Baroque arias and dance.

Joy and woe were woven fine throughout, but especially so in a tenderly moulded account of Schubert’s "Unfinished" Symphony. Rattle views the “Unfinished” in the context of a prose vision of paternal rejection and reconciliation committed to the page by Schubert in 1822, the same year as he composed the symphony’s first two movements before illness – perhaps the onset of the syphilis that killed him six years later – forced him to leave it alone. The musical outworking of Mein Traum is more conventionally found in the haunted fragments of song that make up the A minor piano sonata from the same year, but the case was persuasively made by the cellos imbuing that ever-familiar second theme with an unfamiliar, maternal consolation of the kind that lends the German Requiem of Brahms its particular mode of comfort and grief (a requiem written shortly after not only the death of Brahms’s mother but also the belated first performance of the “Unfinished”).

If the edges were rather smoothed off the eruptive, unconsoled moments of both movements, the emotional trajectory of the symphony was continued and fulfilled by the Rückert-Lieder of Mahler. These were vibrantly characterised by Magdalena Kožena in fine voice, bestowing an easy charm upon “Liebst du um Schonheit” before seizing upon the outlandish orchestration of “Um Mitternacht” (no violins, a wind-band and a culmination of rippling harp and piano, relished to the full by Rattle) to contrive a bitter and brittle declamation of what is often sung as a pleading soliloquy.

Magdalena Kožená and Sir Simon Rattle

Kožena (pictured above with husband Rattle) strode back on to the platform after the interval, now clad in a virid gown of gold zips and serious attitude. What had been so touching and sincere (not an easy quality to achieve in Mahler) about the Rückert-Lieder was pushed to the edge of parody in three arias of Handel by the full repertoire of vocal and physical gestures which a stage creature such as Kožena will tend to let loose when unconstrained by the discipline of a full staging.

Thus Agrippina’s “Pensieri, voi mi tormentate” opened with a minute-long sulky pout, its fury of indecision further compromised by competing for projection with the obbligato oboe of Olivier Stankiewicz stationed just to her left. A more focused and sympathetic partnership was struck up with Rachel Gough’s bassoon in Ariodante’s “Scherza infida” before Kožena revived her diva-on-the-edge-of-a-nervous-breakdown act with “Dopo notte” from the same opera, pushing hard at the coloratura and exposing some threadbare divisions between registers: the passage of a decade was plain to hear between this performance and her Handel recital CD from 2007.

It was almost a decade earlier that Rattle first conducted the last opera of Rameau, and he must by now know every quirky corner of Les Boréades better than any conductor in history save perhaps Sir John Eliot Gardiner, who (incredibly) conducted the premiere in 1975, more than two centuries after it had been withdrawn from rehearsal upon the 80-year-old composer’s demise. Rattle has made a party piece out of a dance-suite of his own devising, and the LSO responded to his baton-less, score-less ballet of direction with infectious enthusiasm and some wind playing of dewy-eyed wonder, if yet lacking the last semiquaver of idiomatic precision which he coached over time into the Berlin Philharmonic. Here he reprised his schtick of repeating the proto-Sibelian wasteland of a final-act bourrée before whipping up a storm of music and applause, but it was the masterfully severe and ungainly harmony of the Contredanse en rondeau that left me humming my way home.

@PeterQuantrill

The LSO responded to Rattle’s baton-less, score-less ballet of direction with infectious enthusiasm and some wind playing of dewy-eyed wonder

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