mon 20/05/2024

LSO, Rattle, Barbican review - inner magic eventually joins outward mastery | reviews, news & interviews

LSO, Rattle, Barbican review - inner magic eventually joins outward mastery

LSO, Rattle, Barbican review - inner magic eventually joins outward mastery

Mahler's Adagietto sounds fresh in a never less than impressive Fifth Symphony

Rattle in his last great Mahler, a Berlin Philharmonic farewell at the 2016 PromsChris Christodoulou

Nearly 17 years ago, Simon Rattle inaugurated his era at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic with Mahler's Fifth Symphony.

It couldn't hope to possess the thrill of discovery which had marked his Birmingham Mahler – after all, the Berliners had long enjoyed a more organic view of the composer with Claudio Abbado – but eventually the team gave us a supreme Proms performance of the Seventh Symphony, the one best suited to Rattle's curious form of micro-management. The London Symphony Orchestra, on the other hand, must be so relieved to be free of Gergiev's superficial Mahlerian glut, and while the love-in of their first concerts with Rattle as music director may have mellowed a bit, this was still a hyper-alert and occasionally revelatory Fifth.

In Berlin, the companion-piece of the launch event was Thomas Adès's effective if hardly profound Asyla. Here we had the third of the symphonies without a number Rattle has chosen in his two concerts of the week: Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem to follow John Adams's Harmonielehre and Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique. Taking Mahler's pattern, itself indebted to Beethoven's Fifth, of darkness to light – here D minor rather than C sharp minor to D major – Britten's optimism is understandably more cautious in the wake of a First World War that Mahler may have anticipated but never lived to see, and at the beginning of a Second. This first of Britten's war requiems has long been a Rattle speciality. The splinters that fly from its central Dies Irae – brilliantly marshalled here with thunder-crack timpani to the fore – settle to a flute-song Requiem Aeternam and a resolution of the work's opening anguish, though question marks remain.

The centrifugal 'world without gravity' only freed up in its twilight zone Mahler brushes any ambiguity aside in his tumultuous celebratory finale; the central scherzo of his five-movement plan has dealt with all the turmoil, and the Adagietto makes a clean break. That, surprisingly from a conductor who can be mannered in his movement, breathed sheer perfection of pace from immaculate LSO strings, and an especially magical harp contribution after the mid-point. Only the air around it was lacking; that will hopefully come with the acoustics of Rattle's new concert hall. The Barbican Hall is a poor space for Mahler, forbidding deep perspectives – Haitink came close in his recent LSO concerts – but balances were perfect, thanks to more incisive playing from wind and brass. Mahler's second-movement companion to his opening funeral march, a storm that furnished Britten with one idea for his ferocious counterpart in Peter Grimes, can outstay its welcome, and it may have had only outward firepower here; but Rattle did reinforce the final climactic reworking of earlier material with startlingly fresh bass lines.

There were some typical mannerisms, the last – after a tumultous welter – bringing things close to a mystic halt just before the emergence of the triumphant chorale and the last starburst (most slight lapses in ensemble had been a mark that Rattle was trusting his orchestra to be more free, but the one in the rift valley here was a bit too dangerous for comfort). The centrifugal "world without gravity" only freed up in the twilight zone ushered in by superb horn calls from Timothy Jones and colleagues; interesting work on the pizzicato shadowplay waltzes occasioned a bit of worthwhile score adjustment. Some of Rattle's fierce gestures or advance finger-to-mouth injunctions to strings seem to be more for the audience's benefit than his orchestra's. But still, he does seem to be playing them in a good sense, and only experience can yield those sorts of results. On the eve of Europe Day, with Ukrainian and Maltese violinists on the front desk (the superbly communicative Roman Simovic and Carmine Lauri), it was vital to be reminded that music-making at the highest level is truly international.

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