Wednesday’s Barbican concert presented an interesting juxtaposition of three works written within a decade of each other. The LSO has always been an orchestra of the highest quality, but now, after a year under Sir Simon Rattle, they have become, if possible, even better. There is even more confidence in their performances, and it shows in both boldness and nuance; there are new brilliances in timbre, and their playfulness with dynamic and tempo are even more marked. The concert saw some cracking solo work, particularly in the woodwind, and it is worth mentioning the oboist Olivier Stankiewicz and the clarinettist Chi-Yu Mo, whose short solo passages in the Janáček’s Sinfonietta were utterly delightful – the former for its heartrending sense of yearning, and the latter for the robust, almost-Klezmer quality that it imparted.
The Sinfonietta is bracketed by massive fanfares, and, because of the hall’s peculiar acoustics, the almost overwhelming sound of the extra trumpets (who stood at the back of the stage) gave rise to some amazingly ringing harmonics. It’s a piece full of timbres, and the orchestra did not disappoint, producing a lush string tone in the third movement (which also contained a warm and affirmative low-brass chorus), a barely-sounded muted trumpet in the second movement, and the aforementioned solos. It’s also a work of rhythmic drive, and Rattle kept this going such that even in the broader, more sumptuous passages, one felt that Janáček’s engine was still pumping away beneath the streets of Brno.
The earliest work on the playbill was also the most harmonically challenging. Written in 1916, Szymanowski’s first violin concerto is an example of ‘rotten romanticism’ – where the weight of chromatic shifts becomes so great that the piece loses tonal reference points, foreshadowing the more formal atonalism later pioneered by Schoenberg. Rattle and the orchestra brought all of this to the fore, giving an account that concentrated on texture and dynamic shift – from the opening whirling of harp and woodwind, to little trumpet fanfares, numinous windy brass chords, chirps from flutes, twinkly tuned percussion and some vast moving parallel orchestral chords that brought to mind Messiaen’s Turangalîla. Janine Jansen’s account of the solo violin part was breathtaking; her technique was flawless and she addressed both the furious double-stopping in the final cadenza and the extremely quiet high-position notes with equal poise; a moment of pure delight was when, after the rapid diminuendo of a vast orchestral chord, the violin was left singing a single, pure, high note. Jansen is also a consummate communicator, moving sinuously – almost dancing – to the pace and material, and the bold gold stripe on her black dress swaying with the music, became a charmed snake mesmerised by Rattle’s beat.
Simon Rattle’s history with Sibelius’ 5th symphony is a long one; it was, apparently, a childhood favourite, and his prize-winning 1987 recording was one of the early successes of his career. He has performed it many times since, and custom never stales its infinite variety. The orchestra pulled out all the stops and gave us a magnificently warm string tone, a bleakness to the unison passages in the first movement, a whole range of dynamic in the pizzicato playing, the quietest of string pianissimi at the opening of the third movement and a regally delivered ‘swan theme’ in the brass that was pushed and pushed as its chromatic underlay morphed. Rattle seemed to have particular affection for the double basses, pom-pomming along with them at one point, and egging them on to a deliciously dramatic set of string slaps in the final movement. The perfect finale to this part of the season.