An evening of Adams, Debussy and Ravel allows all sections of the London Symphony Orchestra to shine in a rich and varied programme of musical blockbusters.
As Simon Rattle’s tenure at the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) draws to a close, he quite rightly chose to conduct a series of valedictory concerts featuring works close to his heart. This concert contained three blockbusters – all works usually considered to be the main pieces on the programme – that have been central to Rattle’s repertoire from his early days at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), namely John Adams’ Harmonielehre, Debussy’s La Mer, and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé – Suite No. 2.
All three require large orchestral forces, and make significant demands on all the players. However, still recovering from Covid, Rattle was forced to withdraw. Finding a replacement conductor in such circumstances is always a challenge, but trying to find one who knew all three works on the programme must have given the orchestra’s administrative department a particular headache. Luckily, Jonathan Stockhammer rode to the rescue. And while it was disappointing that Rattle wasn’t on the podium, Stockhammer did a valiant job, often with thrilling results.
Harmonielehre, Adam’s three-part ‘symphony’ is an exacting work, and demands feverish levels of concentration from both conductor and players. Yes, there may be a lot of repetition, but when this is combined with syncopated rhythms in a consistent state of flux, it’s fatal if anyone takes their eye off the ball. Not only did Stockhammer ensure that every ostinato and every change of tempo was in place, he also paid scrupulous attention to each instrumental line. In a piece as heavily scored as this, it would be easy for textures to blur and get submerged in a wall of sound. The first movement (untitled) pulsated with high-octane energy, whilst the second (The Anfortas Wound), with its Mahlerian undertones, interspersed with the occasional Brucknerian sonorities, was the perfect antidote to the preceding frenetic opening. Stockhammer secured playing of pinpoint accuracy in the challenging third movement (Meister Eckhardt and Quackie) – the work’s climax was properly shattering.
“…Jonathan Stockhammer rode to the rescue”
It goes without saying that La Mer, a score painted in half-colours, requires an entirely different approach. Working with an impressionistic musical canvas revealed Stockhammer’s adaptability as a conductor, as he revelled in Debussy’s masterly use of instrumental textures. There was a real sense of nature awakening in De l’aube à midi sur la mer (From Dawn to Noon on the Sea), shimmering strings and muted brass evoking the sunlight reflecting off the waves, while in Jeux de vagues (The Play of the Waves), there was an underlying ‘bite’ to proceedings, Stockhammer perfectly capturing the ebb and flow. In the final movement, Dialogue du vent et de la mer (Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea), the orchestra whipped up a storm – again, each musical line was crystal clear – unleashing the elements, and leaving the audience feeling suitably windswept.
Taken from his ballet of the same name, Ravel’s Orchestral Suite No. 2 is essentially the third part, which opens with one of, if not the most brilliant musical description of daybreak ever composed. A sense of mystery was unfortunately lacking here – the lower strings could have done with playing more quietly at the start of the crescendo which anticipates the sun’s rays bursting over the horizon, as it was played at one dynamic level. That’s more the conductor’s fault, but having said that, the chirruping woodwind dawn chorus was pure magic. With 10 percussionists, including the timpanist, the climaxes were unsparing but thrilling, yet the quieter more introspective passages were equally beguiling, thanks in no small part to Gareth Davies’ exquisite flute solos.
Stockhammer can’t have had a huge amount of rehearsal time with the orchestra, so the occasional imbalance here and there was to be expected. Still, given the circumstances he and his players covered themselves with glory in an illuminating and energetic evening of music making.