Live review – London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle: Stravinsky, Birtwistle & John Adams

London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (above)

Barbican Hall, London
Thursday 2 May 2019

Stravinsky Symphonies of Wind Instruments (original version) (1920)
Birtwistle The Shadow of Night (2001)
John Adams Harmonielehre (1985)

Written by Ben Hogwood

These days attending a London Symphony Orchestra concert brings with it a guarantee of intriguing programming and breathtaking musicianship. This one had a real ‘darkness to light’ demeanour, moving from the blacker than black recesses of Sir Harrison Birtwistle to the wide open, sunlit panoramas created by John Adams.

Before that, a composer whose influence could be keenly felt in the music of both composers. Stravinsky made many innovations in pieces other than his celebrated Rite of Spring, and Symphonies of Wind Instruments could certainly be regarded as one of his most original. With the term ‘symphony’ interpreted through its original meaning, the ‘concord of sound’, Stravinsky proceeds to build an innovative one-movement piece that contrasts busy movement with still reflection.

The instrumentation is fascinating, especially in the original version, which uses alto clarinet and alto flute. It explains the simply wonderful sounds made by the 24-piece London Symphony Orchestra wind and brass, the rich chords often baleful and downcast (the piece is a memorial to Debussy) but the faster music sprightly and energetic. A better performance of this piece would be hard to imagine, energetically guided by Sir Simon Rattle.

The music of Sir Harrison Birtwistle continues to split opinion. For this particular listener it is not an easy prospect, and I confess to having developed headaches in previous performances of Earth Dances and Neruda Madrigales, while admiring The Moth Requiem and Silbury Air. I therefore approached The Shadows of Night with some trepidation, but found it an ultimately rewarding score, its heavy darkness punctuated by relieving solos of glittering light from bassoon and E-flat clarinet, where Chi Yu Mo was simply superb.

Birtwistle’s colouring of the lower regions of the string orchestra is particularly fine, and the first five minutes were a sonic wonder to behold, as though the Barbican had opened up into a monstrous cave. Then the piccolo stated a John Dowland song, In Darkness Let Me Dwell, after which the piece lumbered through a number of sections with gathering tension. Once this was released the clarinet worked its magic, and Rattle set us down in a heap for the interval.

Following Birtwistle with John Adams was like throwing open the curtains to greet a sun-splashed new morning, and the LSO sparkled with what seemed to be new-found freedom. Harmonielehre delights in tonality, politely rejecting Schoenberg’s treatise of the same name to power forward with terrific rhythmic impetus and walls of consonant harmonies. Within themselves these create some exquisite dissonance and colour, with the brass and percussion in particular shining through. Rattle has this piece under his skin, having recorded it with the CBSO in 1993, and if anything his interpretation has gained speed and electricity. as the composer himself noted on Twitter!

The audience were swept up in the cumulative power and energy of the piece, particularly in its closing section, which carried all before it. Of all the prominent exponents of minimalism, Adams has the most effective orchestral writing, and his clear signposts of influences (Sibelius Symphony no.4, Stravinsky, Debussy and even Britten) were all used to original effect. It was an invigorating close to a terrific concert.

Further listening

The music from this concert can be heard on the Spotify playlist below:

You can read Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s thoughts on The Shadow of Night at his publisher Boosey & Hawkes’ website, and John Adams talks about Harmonielehre on his own webpage

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