Two Helpings of Stravinsky Ballets from Rattle and the LSO: Rich Fare Indeed

25/09/2017

Rattle

Stravinsky: London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Barbican Concert Hall, London, 21.9.2017 and 24.9.2017. (AS)

Stravinsky – The Firebird; Petrushka (1947 version); The Rite of Spring

An enormous amount of advance publicity has attended Sir Simon Rattle’s appointment as Music Director of the LSO, and finally his time has arrived. I am sure that news of the 12-day series of events to celebrate the union, under the heading “This is Rattle”, will have escaped few readers of this review. Though that title may be slightly off-putting to many, the events themselves contain a rich and enterprising diversity of repertoire, and this concert (which will be repeated on Sunday) was surely a major highlight.

No doubt the idea of presenting all three of Stravinsky’s early series of three great ballet scores in one concert has occurred before, and possibly has been fulfilled – though I know of no instance – but it is known that Sir Simon cherished the idea of making it happen.

Despite all the publicity razzmatazz there is apparently a real sense of warm connection between this conductor and the LSO players, and long may this continue, for Rattle’s persona and gift for making things happen can only be of great benefit to music making in London.

He conducted all three works (separated by two intervals) from memory, and this feat reminds us that they have been cornerstones of his repertoire for many years. On the evidence of these current performances, the scores all remain fresh and inspirational to him.

For me, the familiar 1919 suite from The Firebird, with its reduced orchestration, is a pale reflection of the original ballet score, since it omits some of the most strikingly imaginative and richly scored passages in the complete work, even if they may sometimes be linking passages between set numbers. Rattle’s approach to the earlier parts of the work, particularly, was quite soft-grained and warmly expressive in nature, reflecting the music’s roots in nineteenth-century Russian romanticism rather than the composer’s youthful streak of adventure. He took great care in the shaping of phrases, thus bringing out the music’s opulent qualities rather than its balletic properties: this was very much a concert reading rather than one you would hear in the pit of a theatre as an accompaniment to dance. But then, as the drama developed so did Rattle’s approach to the music sharpen, and the LSO’s virtuosity in the minutes before Kaschei’s Dance was tested to the full by its conductor: the dance itself was taken at a very smart tempo. And tension remained high until the final triumphant apotheosis.

The contrast between the rich colour of Firebird and the harder edges of Petrushka were pointed by the use of the 1947 version of the latter score, with its more economical scoring than the original 1911 version. On this special occasion it might have been good to have the original, with its extra glitter and atmosphere. Rattle’s approach throughout the work was quite tough, with fast and furious tempi from the beginning, and high momentum. This did not preclude rich characterisation of each of the ballet’s episodes: the puppet Petrushka’s feelings of desperate and despairing love for the Ballerina were painfully conveyed. And there was a sense of real joy in the LSO’s playing of the opening of the Fourth Tableau, with everybody celebrating the special occasion of the Shrovetide Fair in the highest of spirits. Until, of course, the moment when Petrushka is killed by the Blackamoor, his rival for the Ballerina’s affections. This episode and the concluding appearance of Petrushka’s ghost were painted by Rattle with a chilling sense of drama.

Since it has now become a familiar repertoire work, performed with the utmost confidence by orchestras all over the world, The Rite of Spring no longer has the power to shock any of us, except maybe those lucky individuals who are experiencing it for the first time. Certainly, the LSO’s playing on this occasion, though of course brilliant, had a sense of ease and comfort which certainly did not reflect the tension and struggle experienced by orchestras and conveyed to audiences years ago. But that loss of experience enables us to appreciate the amazingly innovative details of the work more clearly and perhaps more dispassionately. Rattle’s conducting throughout the work was exemplary in all respects: his tempi were very much as one would expect, and thankfully he was not tempted to take the final Danse sacrale too quickly. At his quite measured tempo the extraordinary rhythmic accents and emphases were allowed their full weight, so that the final crashing end of the work made full impact.

After writing the above review I was fortunate to attend the second of the two concerts mentioned above. In fact, it was the orchestra’s third performance of the programme, since it had played it in Paris between the two London events.

One would not expect Rattle to change his interpretations very much in the space of four days, nor did he. There was a difference in The Firebird, however, in that the occasional coarse textures that had cropped up in Thursday’s performance – not sufficient for them to be noted above – had now disappeared, and there was even more beauty and bloom in the sound. There was, indeed, a new and supreme confidence in the playing. Petrushka was just as thrilling as before, and here it was notable that Rattle gave his solo players still more room to shape their phrases than he had in the first concert. And though The Rite is familiar territory for the LSO, Rattle’s particular reading was now thoroughly bedded in and he inspired even more thrilling playing than he had on the former occasion.

Before the concert, City of London’s Lord Mayor, Alderman Dr Andrew Parmley, had spoken on behalf of the Mayor’s traditional Appeal, focused this year on raising funds for musical education. In so doing he had used pardonable hyperbole in declaring the LSO to be the greatest orchestra in the world. “No pressure”, Sir Simon was apparently heard to murmur, as he stood nearby. But after hearing the concert one wondered – for the moment, anyway – whether the Mayor’s statement wasn’t in fact true.

Alan Sanders

The 21 September concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. Readers with access to the BBC iPlayer can hear it for 30 days from the date of transmission by clicking here.

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