Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Listening to America review – stunning performances of Adams, Gershwin and Harris from the LSO

3 March 2024

Simon Rattle returns as the LSO’s Conductor Emeritus to lead the orchestra in an American programme, featuring a world première from John Adams.

Simon Rattle

Simon Rattle & the LSO (Photo: Mark Allan)

Back in 1987, Simon Rattle and the London Sinfonietta released The Jazz Album, whose contents included jazz-influenced works by Milhaud, Stravinsky, Bernstein and Gershwin, along with some slickly produced shorts from the jazz age (Makin’ Whoopee, My Blue Heaven, Sweet Sue etc.). Sunday evening’s programme at The Barbican felt not only like a welcome blast from this particular part of Rattle’s past, but seemed an eminently suitable combination of serious and light-hearted works for his return, on a flying visit as the London Symphony Orchestra’s Conductor Emeritus, to a London podium.

The Gershwin pieces that bookended the evening were from two shows that flopped (Let ‘Em Eat Cake and Strike Up the Band), and it’s perhaps a pity that the first of these – a romping, pre-war satire on political corruption and right-wing machinations in Washington – is unlikely to be getting a full outing this election year. Their overtures, though, are crammed with stylish and tuneful joie de vivre in which Rattle and the orchestra immersed themselves, revelling in the augmentation made to the usual pit band sound by a full stage of instruments, and delivering Gershwin’s trademark jaunty marches, cheeky riffs and lush melodies with élan. A suitable brashness pervaded the military swagger from the brass and percussion that occurs in both overtures; the loose-limbed stride of numbers such as ‘Mine’ (from Cake) and ‘I mean to say’ (from Strike Up) sauntered along with an insouciant swing; and the soaring lyricism of Gershwin’s irresistible tunes was given full attention by a string tone as rich as Reedsburg butter. A shout out for the trombone section and clarinettist in Strike Up, who, in time-honoured big band manner, stood to deliver their perfectly nuanced solo material.

All this raffish exuberance was slightly damped down for the performance of Gershwin’s F-major piano concerto, as befitted (despite its initial 1925 reception as being ‘too jazzy’) a more serious work. It’s spikier, too, and although the quicksteps, strides and lyricism (the latter especially in the slow movement) are present, there’s a more earnest approach to its structure, and all those blue-note harmonies have more of a feel of 20th century Modernism about them. The ‘pecking’ interjections of the orchestra in the outer two movements were precisely controlled to give just the right degree of edge to the concerto, but there were nonetheless some glorious moments of broad melody, hot syncopated rhythm and weighty ensemble – Rattle, as always, demanding (and receiving) perfectly co-ordinated shifts in tempo, texture and dynamic (the heavy pull-up into the grandiloquent finale of the first movement was magical). Kirill Gerstein took the solo piano part, and delivered it with precision and a commendable understanding of the idiom. His playing is best described as elegant – there are no grand gestures or hammering, just weight concentrated where it needs to be and a keenly controlled agility; the cadenza in the second movement was a masterpiece of bluesy flexibility, and the repeated thumping of notes in the third movement brought insistence and drive without any feeling of frenzy.

“…the soaring lyricism of Gershwin’s irresistible tunes was given full attention by a string tone as rich as Reedsburg butter”

Simon Rattle & John Adams

Simon Rattle & John Adams (Photo: Mark Allan)

Frenzy, though, in all its forms (wild folly, crazy notions, delirium, fury, agitation…) was the subject (and title) of John Adams’ latest symphonic work, given its world première on Sunday. In recent years, the influence of Modernism of the later 20th century seems to have pervaded Adams’ work, yet in Frenzy, he seems to be mingling the Minimalism that made his name and a compositional style from further back: there are touches of Bartók, perhaps, or Nielsen, or even Stravinsky about its harmonies. In any event it’s a glitteringly brilliant work full of threat and challenge as well as the odd moments of humour or calm. Minimalism shines through in the moto perpetuo of its structure: there are no silences, and a relentless, two-chord industrial chugging pervades, even in the pastorally tranquil sections (where harps and pizzicato basses quietly tick away under the diaphanous string sound). It was, naturally, given a first-rate performance. Rattle and the orchestra brought exactitude to the fierce counterpoint, and were in full control of each sudden volte face in timbre, speed or volume, to give us the clanking, whooshing exhilaration of an unstoppable locomotive – or, perhaps, a slightly longer ride in a fast machine.

Aaron Copland is arguably the best known American symphonist in the UK, and, sadly, the works of his contemporaries Howard Hanson and Roy Harris, see few performances here. Roy Harris’ 1939 Third Symphony was the work that brought him public acclaim, and a British performance of it was not to be missed. It’s a seamless work in five contrasting sections, to which the LSO applied all of their skill in presenting variation in instrumental texture. The cello opening was full of opulence, and the subsequent melodic passage, while uncomfortably angular was softened by the gorgeous accompanying throb of violins and an undertow of warm brass, the open intervals of which left us in no doubt as to its American character.The shimmer of violins and twitter of woodwind were perfectly balanced for the ‘Pastoral’ section, whose fluttery airiness scurried into some solid work from violins and trombones to point up a fugue of power and clarity. In the final section came the silences, whose measured brevity brought even more profundity to the grandeur and thunder of the broad closing theme.

buy London Symphony Orchestra MP3s or CDs
Spotify London Symphony Orchestra on Spotify

More on London Symphony Orchestra
LSO/Chamayou/Pappano review – a concert of shifting moods
LSO /Jansen /Pappano review – Barber, Boulanger and Rachmaninov
Listening to America review – stunning performances of Adams, Gershwin and Harris from the LSO
LSO review – Bruckner 9 with happy ending
London Symphony Orchestra review – Barbara Hannigan leads a bold season opener