Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Betsy Jolas’ new work and Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie review – Simon Rattle’s last hurrah as the LSO’s Music Director

14 June 2023

Simon Rattle celebrates leaving his post as the LSO’s Music Director with a double concert of 20th century Modernism.

Barbican Centre

Barbican Centre (Photo: Dion Barrett)

It seems like only yesterday (it was 2017) that Simon Rattle became Music Director of the London Symphony Orchestra, and, with his usual touch of sorcery, transformed it from being ‘merely’ good to its taking its place as Britain’s premier orchestra. This summer, he returns to Germany to take up the post of chief conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (although he retains the post of LSO’s ‘conductor emeritus’, and will return next year to direct them in concerts of Janáček, Shostakovich and Adams). We wish him well.

Although Rattle has an uncanny ability to bring his own masterly interpretation to music of all centuries, it is for his love of 20th century music, and his championship of music of this century that he is best known, and it seemed only right, then, that his pair of farewell concerts with the LSO (Wednesday and Thursday this week) should feature a world première (Betsy JolasCes belles années) and one of the greatest symphonic works of the last century – one that he has conducted many times as well as recorded with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie.

Betsy Jolas studied under Messiaen, and, like her contemporaries Boulez and Stockhausen, embraced the cerebral and experimental world of 20th century Modernism, an idiom she continues to write in as she approaches her century; Ces belles années (for soprano and large orchestra) is no exception. It opens with percussive thumps and (appropriately) rattles, and continues through a series of part-resolved orchestral phrases (which may be lush string passages, dramatic brass statements, or short, almost jazz-like syncopations) each of which is interrupted by a barrage of plops, bangs and crunches from the percussion section; it also contains the usual selection of ‘unexpected’ noises from the orchestra including murmuring, clapping and laughing. The soprano (sung on Wednesday by Faustine de Monès) comes in (literally – she walks onto the stage as if expecting to be somewhere else) midway through and delivers (in de Monès’ case, with exaggerated gestures) a series of musically angular but poetically anodyne lines about rejoicing in the small things of life.

The performance, needless to say, was flawless, with Rattle and the orchestra applying precision in texture, dynamic and rhythm to display its strange shifting timbres to the maximum. de Monès brought a creamy vibrato to the soprano part that seemed to be an authentic response to the more rigorously mathematical structure of the work.

“…his usual touch of sorcery, transformed it from being ‘merely’ good to taking its place as Britain’s premier orchestra”

It’s good that works of this sort continue to be written, and they certainly remain an excellent antidote to the soggy postminimalist pablum (that needs to be allied to topical concerns such as climate change in order to provide any hint of erudition) produced by many 21st century composers, but the fierce intellectual quality of the musical heritage of 1960s Paris gives rise to little emotional response – rather a slightly browbeaten “well… that happened”.

Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie manages to square the 20th century circle, delivering both ‘chunes’ and challenge: heart-stopping gusts of fortissimissimo, achingly lovely swooping melodies, enough blue notes for a night at Ronnie Scott’s (despite Messiaen’s rejection of jazz as a valid musical form), some formidably virtuosic keyboard work (not only from the pianist, but from the players of celeste and keyed glockenspiel), and, of course, the other-worldly (and occasionally risible) chirps and swooshes of that most mid-century of instruments, the Ondes Martenot (played, on Wednesday, with her usual excellence, by Cynthia Millar).

Rattle and the orchestra turned in a prize-winning performance, giving us, with élan, all the magic moments of the piece: the massive brass chords; exquisitely co-ordinated work from the two clarinets; some adroit hopping from the bassoon and piccolo in ‘Chant d’amour’; bags of energy for ‘Joie du sang des étoiles’ and ‘Final’; soft yet edgy strings to summon the drowsy abandon of ‘Jardin du sommeil d’amour’. Every expression was in place; every shade of dynamic, speed and texture perfectly delineated.

The line-up of keyboards and vibraphones all facing one way and the Ondes the other at the front of the stage put one in mind of a traffic standoff in a one-way street, and, while it’s usual for the piano and Ondes to be front of stage, having all that tuned percussion to the fore meant that the avian twittering that Messiaen deploys freely to decorate his big orchestral statements was perhaps a bit more distracting than usual. It was a pleasure, though, to watch the much-respected pianist Peter Donohoe’s account of the piano part; most pianists approach this with a kind of tense, muscular technique, but Donohoe, a master of his craft, banged out all of those fiendish passages with a relaxed and insouciant ‘it’s what I do’ brilliance.

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