The inclusion of the celeste in the title of Bartók’s Music for strings, percussion and celeste always seems odd, as it has little prominence (indeed, the piano has a larger role), but on Sunday evening, Catherine Edwards’ playing of the instrument was perfectly judged for both the delicate twinkles and the hard-edged ostinati. Sir Simon Rattle, as always, exerted his intelligent and collegiate control over the London Symphony Orchestra to present a nicely judged performance of the work that concentrated on the character of each movement, yet knitted it together as whole cloth.
The opening fugue began with quiet, loose-limbed understatement, staying low-key until the viola entry, the mellow string tone throughout contrasting cleverly with the uneasy subject. The accentuation of the violin portamenti and big timpani roll provided drama before the movement closed on a highly effective al niente. The frenetic second movement contained some well-co-ordinated pizzicato work, although there were times during the passing of thematic material across sections of the orchestra, when catches were almost missed, and the surety of the transfer wasn’t always felt until the rhythmic full-orchestral completion.
The work’s third movement is famous for its other-worldly quality (and brings to mind Caliban’s remark about ‘a thousand twangling instruments’); Rattle and the orchestra had the spooky dial set to max., such that, after the quietly affirmative viola opening, the pace allowed space for the string slaps, the chilling xylophone ostinati and the timpani glissandi (surely what pedal timps were invented for) to work their creepy magic; the orchestral build under the whooshing harp and celeste assured the melodramatic force. The final movement of the work always feels a little like the cuckoo hatchling in a nest of starlings, as its jolly, folksong-influenced energy sits oddly with the more serious absolutism of the preceding movements. Rattle ensured, however, that its character was amalgamated into the overall feel of the piece through controlling the orchestral texture such that even in its more riotous moments (that one feels must surely have influenced Bernstein) the relationship to Bartók’s earlier material was apparent.
It is probably heresy to admit to not being fond of Bruckner’s symphonies, but he can be a trifle musically prolix in the later ones. Rattle and the orchestra, however, made sure that ennui didn’t set in with a brisk and enjoyable performance (under the hour) of Bruckner’s least popular (and shortest) sixth symphony. The classic contrasts of light and dark were all there, but there was little over-lingering, and they were fused into a rendering that highlighted the mercurial nature of the work. Cleverly, Rattle positioned the double basses on the highest tier of the stage, at the back, allowing the listener to realise what an important role they have in this symphony, from establishing the drive of the first and third movements to their atmospheric pizzicato passages (bringing back the gloom of the funeral march) in the Adagio.
String tone, throughout, was intelligently used to point up the changing moods of the work, in particular, for the sumptuous opening of the second movement, where phrases were completed with naughtily quiet cadences, and the bow-pressure brought to bear during the second movement’s funeral march imparted solemnity without Rattle having to reduce the tempo too much.
The brass, also, played a part in highlighting the ever-changing nature of the work, whether it was through the triumphant exposition of the first broad major-key theme in the Majestoso (bringing a glorious ray of sunshine into the hall), the warm sunset before the return of the Adagio’s funeral march, the strident fanfares in the Scherzo, or the solid bold statements in the Finale.