Opera + Classical Music Reviews

OAE/Simon Rattle @ Barbican Hall, London

15 May 2007

Even on paper this was a must-see combination.

First for Steven Isserlis, his interest in period performance now extended from beginnings on disc in Boccherini through to concerts in Beethoven.

And second for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, in their 21st Anniversary Season and enjoying an overdue reunion with one of their most influential conductors, Sir Simon Rattle, who is currently conducting Debussy at the Royal Opera House.

And It didn’t disappoint. The orchestra rarely venture as far forward in Romantic music as Dvork, but the results from the expanded band were as eye-opening as they were compelling. Rattle lead them through a lean exposition of the Cello Concerto, its outdoor sonorities more apparent than ever. Yet when the music arrived at the second theme, beautifully rendered on horn by Andrew Clark, all was still a lead taken up by Isserlis in an intensely moving passage of music.

At first the indications were that balance might be a problem, with Isserlis’ 1730 Stradivarius (which took its own curtain call at the end!) pitted against a large orchestra. That there were very few problems in this area was thanks also to Rattle, who secured a lovely, reedy sound from the wind. Their contribution to the pastoral opening of the slow movement was notable for its beautiful sonority, before becoming dramatically curtailed by the strings.

Isserlis was relatively understated here, not taking too many liberties with expression or imparting too much vibrato. Lisa Beznosiuk‘s duet with him towards the close made light of Dvork’s challenging flute writing. By contrast the finale leapt forward; a touch on the jaunty side to start with but taking off with an incredible energy. Isserlis’ playing in the high register here was nothing short of heroic, with everything clearly defined yet poetically judged.

The Sixth Symphony followed, a lesser performed but equally thrilling work. Here Rattle drew strong parallels with Beethoven towards the end of the first movement and at the start of the Adagio, which was more of an Andante given the pace adopted by the conductor. At all times Rattle’s phrasing was totally natural and logical; the first movement full and flowing, the exciting Furiant of the third movement daringly fast in execution. Even quicker was the presto coda to the finale, the strings galloping to the finish.

Rattle conducted with flair but little intervention was needed on the issue of the beat itself, so well drilled were the orchestra. They saved the climactic moment of the symphony until just before the finale’s recapitulation, a surge in expression and dynamics that surprised in its power and volume. The orchestra may have been playing Dvork for the first time in a long while, but Sir Simon seems to be in the grip of a love affair with the composer’s music at the moment, and it showed here in a totally winning way.

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