MESSIAEN Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum
BRUCKNER Symphony No 9
Sir Simon Rattle conductor
London Symphony Orchestra
It has been years since I’ve seen Simon Rattle live and a year ago bought a couple of tickets for tonight’s concert at the Barbican. It was the perfect opportunity to avoid the noise and promo madness of his residency with Berlin Phil and to see him again with the wonderful LSO. Of course a major positive was the lack of Mahler from this programme, he just bores me witless (have promised myself to have another go at the old man when I turn 50…in 17 years, ‘nough said!).
The Messiaen was a bold bit of programming and a touch of Rattle’s genuine love for contemporary music that has been his calling card for over thirty years. This particular piece was tough loving for the audience, but in my view a very good way to start the evening. Having the woodwinds, brass and percussion of the orchestra blaze through his undulating angular forms was a joy. Rattle managed to find beauty in the unconventional rhythms the composer provided him with and the players of the orchestra responded with panache and precision. The crescendos in parts 3 and 4 where verging on the deafening from the second row of the stalls that we were sitting! But it was almost an aural cleansing preparing us for the wondrous architectural greatness of the Bruckner.
It was quite funny watching members of the orchestra shielding their ears during those loud, exclamatory percussion laden concluding segments. And despite any technical hair-splitting, which I’m the least qualified to do, ( I tend to judge live performances on the strength of the visceral impression they make) I can say one thing about the Messiaen, it surely gave me goose bumps as the last movement was reaching its climax. It was powerful and some of his spatial/sound effects where brilliant and in a way reminded one that the composer’s main occupation as a church organist. Now if we could grab the LSO and drag them into an ancient cathedral the sights and smells of the place would surely enhance the mesmerising effect.
I came in after the interval fearing that Rattle would go for overtly slow tempi (which it seems to becoming a bit of a problem for him lately) and make the Symphony drag unnecessarily. I shouldn’t have done, my partner actually mentioned how lively Rattle was at the podium and indeed his timings were brisk. In the first movement his emphasis on the individual phrases was impressive, the very good acoustic of the Barbican really helped him to sculpt the sound around quiet melodies and the silence in between incidents. His approach may not have been in the same line of enquiry as Bruno Walter or John Barbirolli who emphasised the overall structure of the Symphony. Rattle added his personal touches to it that made it an emotionally charged testament by a conductor that feels at ease with the material and at home with the Orchestra.
For me the star of the show was the second movement. Where Rattle brought out the dance aspect of the music, his treatment of the trio was bringing up memories of Stravinsky’s ballet music, it was fun and powerful but at the same time very elegant (the luscious string playing was magical) . It was a surprise for me and an interesting contribution in the middle of a very grand orchestral edifice (the piece, after all requires a 107 member orchestra!) . Rattle allowed the formality of the piece to come though but at the same time little charming incidents throughout were given space to develop and transport the listener.
When people ask why is Rattle a special conductor it’s a night like this they have to experience. The playing he extracted from The LSO may not have been totally faultless but it was arresting and with a humane, beating heart in its middle. It’s what great music should do, it should be perfect escapism but at the same time excite the spirit and the senses.
And of course dear reader you can make your mind by listening to the broadcast on BBC Radio 3, on at 7pm, 14 March, here’s the link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00zdfj6