Some orchestras might be disadvantaged by not having a new principal conductor lined up to replace their outgoing one, but this doesn’t seem to be a problem for the London Symphony Orchestra, whose concerts this season and next involve as starry list of guest conductors as could be imagined. This one featured the second of four appearances this year by Sir Simon Rattle, every seat sold for his attractive programme of works by 20th century composers.
Thanks to the advocacy of conductors such as Boulez, Levine and Rattle himself, the remarkable distillation of content, form and emotion represented by Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra is no longer a rarity in the concert hall. Using the revised score of 1928 rather than the slightly fuller original of 1910, Rattle led an assured and compelling interpretation, rich in colour and detail and achieving a terrifying climax in the fourth movement funeral march. I’m not sure it was the ideal work with which to open a concert, however, as the presentation of Webern’s rarefied writing was undermined by an excess of coughing and other audience noise that might have been lessened had the pieces been played later in the concert.
Luxuriance of texture and intensity of emotion were the hallmarks of the performance of Berg’s Three Fragments from Wozzeck that followed. With the role of Marie sympathetically sung by Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, this was a performance of compelling vividness and conviction, leaving one keen to hear the same artists in a performance of the complete opera.
Hannigan was also the soloist in the Mysteries of the Macabre, an arrangement of three arias from Ligeti’s 1977 opera Le Grand Macabre. All three arias, sung by the character of the Chief of the Secret Political Police, involve an exaggerated and farcical coloratura style, accompanied by similarly witty and subversive writing for the orchestra. Hannigan has made a speciality of the role, not only singing it but also sometimes conducting it. Here she left the podium duties to Rattle, but her assumption was strikingly physical as well as vocal, the elegant gown from the first part of the concert eschewed in favour of the costume and demeanour of a rebellious schoolgirl, complete with ponytails, bubble gum and a tartan miniskirt. Both technically and theatrically, hers was a tremendous performance of the role, the results at once mesmerising and amusing. It was an eight minutes that won’t easily be forgotten.
The concert concluded with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, a Rattle speciality and a performance conducted from memory. With the LSO on top form, woodwinds in particular focused and expressive, Part I was rich with earthiness and power, the faster sections brimming with excitement. Part II, however, was somehow less successful, Rattle’s deliberate tempo for the introduction undermined the spontaneity the performance enjoyed earlier, the excessively quiet muted trumpets adding to the sense of artifice. Although the orchestral playing remained on a very high level, the performance never really regained the thrust and intensity that made Part I so impressive.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk.