This Is Rattle. The LSO’s New Music Director Begins with a Major Statement of Intent



This Is Rattle – Grime, Adès, Birtwistle, Knussen, Elgar: Christian Tetzlaff (violin), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 14.9.2017. (CS)

Helen GrimeFanfare (world premiere)
Thomas AdèsAsyla
Harrison Birtwistle – Violin Concerto
Oliver Knussen – Symphony No.3
Edward ElgarVariations on an Original Theme, ‘Enigma’

‘This is Rattle’ announced two big screens either side of the Barbican Hall – in case we hadn’t noticed that the Maestro is back in town, to assume his new role as Music Director of the Orchestra, and Artist-in-Association at the Barbican and Guildhall School of Music & Drama.

And, reads the Barbican website, ‘This is Grime.  This is Adès.  This is Birtwistle.  This is Knussen’: a sort of primer for those unfamiliar with British contemporary music, introducing those composers whose work was to be performed at Rattle’s inaugural concert and whom he has invited to curate their own evenings of music during ‘ten days of celebratory events’ at the Barbican which include exhibitions, films, an ‘Opera in a Day’ workshop at LSO St Luke’s, and performances by musicians of all ages, including the young musicians of LSO On Track.

Rattle’s programming of this opening concert certainly set out his intent: an intent confirmed in an interview screened between works in which he observed that British music is currently riding high and we have a duty to – and, would be mad not to – advocate and cultivate the work of our living composers.  So, the patrons in the full-to-bursting Barbican Hall were presented with four modernist works, dating from 1979 to 2017, which offered an almost over-whelming display of colour, clamour and orchestral muscle, before Elgar’s Enigma Variations rounded things off with a good tune.

The LSO played with tremendous commitment: one didn’t need to see the instrumentalists’ smiles to recognise the excitement and enthusiasm with which they are welcoming their new musical director.  This programme made enormous demands and they certainly rose to the occasion.

To open the concert, the Barbican had commissioned a new work from Helen Grime – a Fanfare, fittingly, to herald the ‘new era’.  The four-minute work is part of a longer commission that will be heard next year, and it did feel rather like an ‘ice-breaker’, with the harmonic arguments left hanging at the close.  Vibrant tuned percussion alternated with brassy flourishes, while the high strings strode through a lithe and lively dance.  The restlessness of the music sometimes felt volatile, elsewhere joyous.  It will be interesting to see where Grime takes the journey.

Rattle has long championed the music of Thomas Adès and, with the CBSO, gave the first performance of Asyla in 1997.  Though it is now twenty-years old and was the work of a twenty-something year-old composer – albeit a remarkably precocious one – Asyla does not fail to surprise and excite.  This performance had tremendous vitality: Grime’s restlessness seemed a mere warm-up for Asyla’s torrent of eclectic sound-worlds.  At times, a martial mood tried to impose itself on the rhythmic turbulence, elsewhere the threatening darkness was flooded with light.  The ‘night-club’ episode, with its hallucinatory, even terrifying, repetitions, was dizzyingly hostile.  The accumulating material seemed to propel itself precipitously towards the close but at the end there was some sense of catharsis, of finding, finally, air to breathe.  After all, ‘asyla’, the plural of asylum, connotates not just incarceration and insanity but also refuge and calm.

Birtwistle’s Violin Concerto seems to set out to issue the soloist a challenge to summon the huge cerebral and technical resources required to command the hot-blooded explosiveness of his own instrument.  Christian Tetzlaff certainly mastered the unremitting, double-stopped wild chuntering, crackling and jigging, and when the solo line leapt to the stratosphere the power of his E string out-rang even the piccolo, scything with beautiful clarity through the orchestral mass.  As he hopped from foot to foot, crouching low then leaning forward to project the soaring ascents, Tetzlaff resembled a devil’s violinist, mercurial and impulsive.  The music’s agitation is temporarily quelled by solo woodwind – first flute, then piccolo followed by bassoon – and subsequently the solo cello, who attempt to engage the soloist in a more soothing dialogue; these solos were accomplished, although the choreography required to bring the players to the fore of the stage could have been more polished.  I confess I found the ceaseless passagework and endless timbral contrasts somewhat exhausting, but in the closing episodes Tetzlaff – conversing in delicate, searching fragments with the orchestral violins – imposed an eloquent quietude.

Another Rattle favourite, Oliver Knussen’s Third Symphony, followed the interval.  Comprising two contrasting halves (composed six years apart), the first part resumed the urgency and diversity of the preceding works, while the timbral delicacies and radiance of the second offered some relief after the prevailing sonic onslaught.

To conclude, we had what Rattle described as one of the first truly great masterpieces by a British composer, since the days of Purcell.  But, even though we were on familiar territory we were not allowed to indulge in complacency, Rattle’s ever fresh consideration of the details creating wonderfully precise portraits.  No sooner had the opening string lines carved clean arcs, than Rattle was encouraging the violins to enrich the following phrase with an indulgent portamento.  The faster variations thrilled, the second (H.D.S.P.) sparkling like a fire-cracker as the strings and woodwind traded prickly staccatos.  Variation IV (W.M.B.) stomped and slithered; the subsequent portrait of ‘R.P.A.’ was warmly affectionate.  ‘Troyte’ (Variation VII), driven by the timpani’s furious outbursts, pounded with an imperious step and surged irrepressibly.  Though the air was cleansed by the woodwind’s gentle dancing, Rattle pushed forward until the momentum was stalled by the strings’ theme in a ‘Nimrod’ which began so subtly, even elusively, as to be barely there.  The ensemble wasn’t always perfect – one imagines that rehearsal time had been lavished on the ‘younger’ compositions – but the musical conversations, between conductor and orchestra, and between instrumental sections, had a persuasive unity.

At times, the build up to this concert had assumed a messianic fervour.  At a pre-concert reception, the LSO Managing Director, Kathryn McDowell, had proclaimed the opening concert of Rattle’s tenure with the orchestra ‘an historic occasion’.  Well, perhaps we need to wait for a few years to pass before we know just how ‘historic’ it really is or was.  But, it’s clear that things are certainly going to be a bit different.

Claire Seymour

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