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

Live review – Leonidas Kavakos, LSO / Sir Simon Rattle: Brahms, Debussy & Enescu

Leonidas Kavakos (violin, above), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (below)

Barbican Hall, London
Sunday 16 December 2018

Brahms Violin Concerto in D major Op.77 (1878)
Debussy Images (1905-12)
Enescu Romanian Rhapsody no.1 in A major Op.11/1 (1901)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra tonight continued their ‘Roots & Origins’ project with a diverse programme ranging from the innate classicism of Brahms, through the refracted (post-)impressionism of Debussy then on to the unaffected nationalism of Enescu.

A change in the running order saw a first half devoted to Brahms’s Violin Concerto – easy to pigeon-hole as archetypally Austro-German, though fairly permeated with elements derived from popular and traditional sources. Nor did Leonidas Kavakos deliver a bland or uneventful account, maintaining palpable momentum across the expansive initial movement that carried through to an uncommonly perceptive take on Joachim’s monumental cadenza, followed by an easeful coda in which the symbiosis between soloist and orchestra was at its most tangible.

While there was no undue lingering in the Adagio, Kavakos brought out its gentle eloquence in full measure – abetted by playing of burnished warmth from the LSO’s woodwind, though there was no lack of agitation in the contrasting central section. The Hungarian overtones of the finale were then given full rein, Kavakos projecting the music’s rhythmic drive as surely as he propelled the coda to its effervescent close. Throughout this performance, Rattle was at one with his soloist in a work he has no doubt given many times during the past four decades.

A dynamic and vividly projected reading, then, from Kavakos (very different from the inward and almost self-communing one he gave during last year’s Enescu Festival), who returned for a predictably scintillating account of the Les furies finale from Ysaÿe’s Second Solo Sonata.


Debussy’s Images has long been a Rattle staple: his running-order differs from that published – though there is arguably no ideal sequence for such a contrasting assemblage. Certainly, the fatefully understated Gigues makes a plausible opening, its fugitive gestures and searching ambivalence more an evocation of the composer in his last years as of any English environs. Rondes de printemps is the positive corollary, its vernal freshness and simmering energy an indication of that renewal in French culture made explicit by the late sonatas. In both pieces, Rattle secured a superfine response from the LSO and if characterization in Ibéria was less acute, this may have been owing to the music’s broad-brush Spanish quality than to any lack of insight. Not in doubt was the cohesion that Rattle drew from this composite work overall.

Cohesion was also key to his performance of Enescu’s First Romanian Rhapsody. More than a medley of popular tunes, its integration is that of a borne symphonist and Rattle responded accordingly as he built momentum across the suave initial episodes before cutting loose with the bacchanal. The degree of detail lost was outweighed by the visceral excitement that held good through to the coda. A piece associated with Rattle since the early 1980s, and of which the LSO gave a memorable televised reading a decade earlier, ended this concert in fine style.

The question remains why Rattle has never added further Enescu to his repertoire. Perhaps he considers him lesser to Szymanowski, whom he has championed assiduously? Pieces such as the Second Symphony, Third Suite and Vox Maris cry out for his advocacy. Maybe one day?

For more information on forthcoming concerts from the London Symphony Orchestra in 2019, you can visit their website. Meanwhile you can enjoy Kavakos in a recent performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto below:

On record: Magdalena Kozená, Christian Gerhaher, LSO / Sir Simon Rattle – Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande (LSO Live)

Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande

Magdalena KozenáChristian Gerhaher, Gerald Finley, Bernarda FinkFranz-Josef Selig, Joshua BloomElias Madlër, London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

LSO Live LSO0790 (three SACDs and one Blu-ray, 160’46”)
Producer James Mallinson Engineers Jonathan Stokes, James Hutchinson
Dates Live performances at Barbican Hall, London on January 9th and 10th, 2016

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra release their first opera collaboration on the LSO’s label. Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande is a work Rattle has conducted often (including London and Salzburg), and the present account confirms his identity with this most elusive of operas.

What’s the music like?

Premiered in 1902 after a genesis of almost a decade, Pelléas et Mélisande is Debussy’s only completed opera and his treatment of Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist drama is a high point of musical impressionism. This recording is derived from two performances at Barbican Hall, shorn of Peter Sellars’ ‘platform staging’ but its partial re-seating of the orchestra evident in numerous instances of balance. The result is to emphasize dramatic extremes, though without necessitating extremes of tempo in what is otherwise a finely integrated reading of real poise.

The cast is a strong one, and such reservations as there are centre on the title-roles. A model of clarity and lucidity, Christian Gerhaher is arguably too self-contained to convey fully the emotional eloquence of a figure whose actions can seem almost involuntary. No less secure technically, Magdalena Kožená is elegant if at times rather generalized in her assumption – rendering the notes with unerring accuracy yet not always conveying the inner radiance of one whose presence should be disconcerting through its very intangibility and equivocation.

Gerald Finley’s is among the finest recorded Golaud – conveying his moroseness and anxiety with palpable conviction though retaining a vital degree of empathy, while Franz-Josef Selig makes of Arkel a nobler and more substantial figure than is too often the case. Bernarda Fink brings warmth and pathos to the (too?) brief role of Geneviève, with Joshua Bloom shining in his cameos as the Doctor and Shepherd, but Elias Mädler is a little too mature in timbre to be ideal for Yniold – his exchanges with Golaud a heart-rending instance of innocence corrupted.

The London Symphony Chorus acquits itself admirably during its brief contribution, with the LSO playing as well as it has done for its new Music Director in terms of fastidiousness and subtlety; climactic peaks thereby feeling the more acute for their rarity. Compared to that of his Royal Opera staging, Rattle’s conducting is freer and less inhibited – touching on a wide expressive range without sacrificing attention to detail. Each of these five acts is shaped with scrupulous regard to the action at hand while being responsive to the emergent overall drama.

Does it all work?

Indeed, for all that Pelléas et Mélisande already has an extensive and impressive discography. Roger Desormière’s 1942 recording (Warner) remains the interpretative benchmark – while, among the more recent accounts, Claudio Abbado (DG), Bernard Haitink (Naïve) and Pierre Boulez’s DVD (DG) all have serious claims on the listener. Presentation over three SACDs and one Blu-ray, with the booklet containing a succinct introduction, synopsis and bilingual libretto, is unexceptionally fine – as also the sound, if with little sense of a tangible acoustic.

Is it recommended?

Yes, though the absence of a visual component on the Blu-ray might be thought something of a missed opportunity. Something LSO Live might like to reconsider before issuing Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, the next Rattle/Sellars/LSO project which is due in the coming months.

You can read more about this release at the LSO Live website, or you can listen on Spotify below:

On screen: Barbara Hannigan, London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle – Stravinsky: Rite of Spring; Berg: Wozzeck Fragments; Ligeti: Mysteries of the Macabre (LSO Live)

Webern Six Pieces op.6 (1909/28)
Berg Three Fragments from Wozzeck, op. 7 (1923)
Ligeti arr. Howarth Mysteries of the Macabre (1992)
Stravinsky The Rite of Spring (1913)

Barbara Hannigan (soprano – Berg & Ligeti), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

LSO Live LSO3028 [84’58’’] One DVD and one Blu-ray disc

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Following on from its all-French programme (LSO3038), LSO Live here releases a further concert by the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle on DVD and Blu-ray – once again a co-production with the digital channel Mezzo and in association with ARTE France.

What’s the music like?

Rattle has long been an advocate of Webern’s Six Pieces and made a fine recording of it in his Birmingham days. This LSO account is notable for its scrupulous attention to dynamics and tonal shading, even if such fastidiousness minimizes any real spontaneity in this elusive music. A case in point is the rather effortful climax to the explosive second piece, while the ‘funeral march’ fourth lacks underlying momentum on the way to its powerful though hardly unnerving culmination. Elsewhere, this music’s subdued introspection is tellingly conveyed.

The Three Fragments which Berg drew from Wozzeck follows on naturally. Focussing on the character of Marie enabled the composer to bring together three of this opera’s highlights for concert use, and Barbara Hannigan brings a probing characterization to the lullaby from Act One then the bible-reading scene from Act Three. She captures the naivety of the child at the close of the third fragment, before which the LSO comes into its own in a powerful while not unduly vehement interlude prior to the final scene – Rattle steering them through unerringly.

Hannigan returns in rather different guise for Mysteries of the Macabre that Elgar Howarth arranged from Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre. This present-day staple of the coloratura repertoire lends itself to all manner of parody and if Hannigan’s juvenile delinquent might be felt inappropriate for a chief of secret police, her vocal contribution is uninhibited in its virtuosity. Rattle and his orchestra enter-into the music’s anarchic accordingly, the former’s joke at the expense of Nigel Farage seeming all too ironic in the light of subsequent events.

Rattle’s association with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring goes back to the outset of his career and hearing this account is a reminder of his prowess in music the LSO has itself played many times. Yet for all the consummate technical skill, there is a nagging sense of conductor and orchestra going through the motions to ultimately predictable effect (indeed, the performance from Peter Eötvös with the LSO later that season generated much more genuine excitement and sense of purpose). Easy to admire, there is little here to make one assess this work afresh.

Does it all work?

Absolutely in terms of a programme both cohesive and provocative. Things are more mixed in term of performances – with those of the Berg and (musically at least) the Ligeti as good as one is ever likely to hear, that of the Webern just a little too micro-managed overall and the Stravinsky a reminder that superb playing and expert conducting do not necessarily make for a gripping interpretation.

As an indication of Rattle’s association with the orchestra of which he subsequently became Music Director, there is much here that is enjoyable and engrossing

Is it recommended?

Yes, in terms of a concert to which one might wish to return on repeated occasions. Sound and vision leave little to be desired in either format, though post-production means that there is little sense of the orchestra performing in a tangible acoustic – Barbican Hall or otherwise.

For more information on this release, visit the LSO Live website

London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle – Genesis Suite & Bartók Concerto for Orchestra

Simon Callow, Rodney Earl Clarke, Sara Kestelman, Helen McCrory (narrators), Gerard McBurney (creative director), Mike Tutaj (projection design), London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

Various composers The Genesis Suite (1945)
Bartók Concerto for Orchestra (1943)

Barbican Hall, London; Saturday 13 January 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

Collaboration in classical music is rare. Pop music is full of it – many of the best songs and albums are co-written – but for composers to work together on a single work is nigh on unthinkable. Full marks, then, to Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra for reminding us of an instance when that did in fact happen – no fewer than SEVEN classical composers coming together in 1945, at the end of World War II, to write the Genesis Suite. The project was held together by Nathanial Shilkret, masterminding the project from Hollywood.

The Suite, of course, has nothing to do with the rock band. Yet it is fully progressive, telling the story of the first book of the Bible from creation through to the construction of the Tower of Babylon in the space of an hour, working its way from Schoenberg to Stravinsky via Shilkret himself, Alexandre Tansman, Darius Milhaud, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Ernst Toch.

Rattle and creative director Gerard McBurney collaborated on a series of moving images and audio clips to put the Genesis Suite in modern perspective. These were thought provoking and occasionally daring. The story of Cain and Abel (with surprisingly upbeat music from Milhaud) was played out to a Middle Eastern backdrop, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were prominent during the story of The Flood (Noah and the Ark), while the construction of the Shard against Stravinsky’s music for Babel was a powerful allegory.

Unfortunately the music was overshadowed somewhat by the wordy text, taken directly from the King James Bible, and read as written. Nor was it helped by a lack of ensemble between the starry quartet of narrators. Simon Callow and Helen McCrory stood far left, Sara Kestelman and Rodney Earl Clarke far right – which meant for the audience it was a strain to hear two of the four speakers unless sat directly in the middle, despite the amplification. Some speakers were better versed than others in their delivery, too – and maybe because of my own seated position Kestelman and Clarke appeared to have greater emotional involvement.

The London Symphony Chorus, however, were as one in their powerful contributions, dressed in white to maximise their dramatic delivery. When the men came out into the stalls for the Stravinsky finale the Suite’s tension between creation and what man has done with it reached its ultimate, tense conclusion.

Musically the Suite was inconsistent. Schoenberg’s Prelude stood out for inventive orchestration and far reaching harmonic language, while in a dramatic sense Toch’s dramatic setting of The Rainbow (The Covenant) was a notable high. Creation itself, Shilkret’s contribution, felt hurried, the seven days of creation crammed into ten minutes.

Despite these reservations Genesis Suite made a lasting impression, especially following Rattle’s assertion that all composers except one wrote in exile. After the interval another such composer, the Hungarian Béla Bartók writing in America in 1943, was to light up the concert.

It is very easy to take the LSO’s virtuosity for granted, but in a performance like this they shone from every corner. Rattle challenged them to dig deep technically and emotionally and they delivered on every level, particularly in the work’s deeply felt heart, the Elegia. Rattle and McBurney opted to continue with images, which were slow moving or static this time, depicting the forests Bartók looked on during composition. However the gauze on which the images were shown did on occasion muffle the projection of the brass musicians sat under or behind the screen.

Ultimately this did not spoil a terrific performance, where sinewy strings and percussive outbursts were complemented by outstanding, colourful woodwind playing. The first of the two scherzos brought this out, with pairs of bassoons, flutes, clarinets and oboes outstanding in their delivery, balanced by the trumpets. The finale danced energetically, bathed in a luminous glow which proceeded to leave its spell on the audience.

Further listening

You can see Sir Simon Rattle talking about the Genesis Suite below:

The music from this concert, including Rattle’s own recording of the Concerto for Orchestra, can be heard on this Spotify playlist: