Mahler, Simon Rattle and the LSO: the perfect cocktail
Towards the end of next year Simon Rattle leaves these shores once again – to become chief conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. It is no surprise that he wishes to leave Johnson’s bin fire Britain – his sterling attempts to pull Britain’s classical concert standards up by its bootstraps have met, sadly, with only mixed success, and it is understandable that he wishes to move to a more supportive environment; we wish him well. One area of tremendous achievement has been his work with the London Symphony Orchestra, and under his baton, they have moved from being an excellent orchestra to an outstanding one (and he will remain their conductor emeritus).
It seemed only right, then, that Rattle and the LSO should be joined, for part of their coda of concerts, by top-notch soloists Sarah Connolly and Louise Alder, as well as the London Symphony Chorus and one of his earlier success stories, the CBSO Chorus, for a Proms performance of Mahler’s second symphony, a much loved, large-scale work that he has conducted many times (and recorded with his previous orchestra, The Berlin Philharmonic).
Before launching into Mahler’s emotional rollercoaster, though, Rattle and the orchestra gave a brief verbal and musical tribute to Harrison Birtwistle who died earlier this year. Donum Simoni MMXVIII is a short work for wind and percussion written (as the Latin tag suggests) as a present to Rattle from the composer. It’s a tiny, concentrated, dose of Birtwistle that feels as though, if left in boiling water, it could unfold into a complete tone poem. Full of the syncopated, multilayered, musically startling quirks of a composer both loved and loathed for his style, it was given an intelligent and fiercely precise account, that left the audience feeling both cleansed and hungry for the main course.
“This wasn’t just a good performance; this was one to remember for a lifetime”
Competition drivers of all kinds, from Formula 1 to Rallycross speak of a synergy with their vehicle – an unthinking understanding of how it performs that engenders a direct link from brain to wheels and engine; so it was for this account of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ symphony. The only scores involved were on the instrument desks – conductor, soloists and choir performed entirely from memory and heart – and the direct transmission of Rattle’s complete vision for the symphony into its realisation in performance could be heard in every phrase. This wasn’t just a good performance; this was one to remember for a lifetime.
Pulling the performance apart really does it little justice, as it was simply a perfect whole cloth, but a critic’s job is to say something, so here are a few delights. Dynamic and tempo: both precisely controlled throughout to point up Mahler’s lurching mood swings; the strings and horns in the first movement’s brief ‘pastoral’ interlude were suddenly quiet and measured, and the wind up of the melody over rhythmic lower strings controlled by the second and the decibel; the hammer strokes of orchestra that transformed in a twinkle into nothingness; the occasional full stop – just a beat of breath – before a new idea began. The Ländler of the second movement was an utter delight, its folksiness brought so close to camp by the little pauses and glorious indulgence from the ‘cellos. The scherzo was a model of timbral clarity, making you realise exactly why Mahler had, for example, chosen a clarinet for a particularly unhinged passage.
The two soloists were excellently blended in ’O Schmerz…’, and Sarah Connolly’s ‘Urlicht’ was haunting, although, if it seemed on occasion that emotion overcame technique, this is entirely understandable.
The choral passages were a sheer joy, and given perfect blend, intonation (the horn entry into the unaccompanied first passage showed tuning to be bang on) synchronicity and dynamic control – the first ‘Aufersteh’n’ entry might well have taken the record for a ppp marking for that number of voices.
Sterben werd’ ich, um zu leben indeed!
• Full details of the BBC Proms season 2022 can be found here.