Simon Rattle a Welcome Guest at Symphony Hall’s Birthday Party

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Brahms, Webern, Schumann: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham. 16.6.2012 (JQ)

Brahms: Symphony No 3 in F major, Op. 90
Webern:  Six Orchestral Pieces, Op. 6
Schumann: Symphony No 3 in E flat, Op. 97 ‘Rhenish’

Symphony Hall’s 21st birthday celebrations roll on. A few nights ago Birmingham’s own orchestra marked the actual anniversary of the official opening of the hall (review); now one of the world’s most prestigious orchestras visited the city to add further lustre to the anniversary party and, fittingly, on the rostrum was the man who had conducted the opening concerts at Symphony Hall back in 1991; Sir Simon Rattle.

It’s fourteen years since Rattle left Birmingham but clearly he’s still held in very high regard; that much was evident from the extremely warm reception accorded to him when he came on stage. Of course, his career has developed – broadened and deepened – in many ways since those exciting days when he was in charge of the CBSO (1980-1998) and one way in which he’s broadened is in his choice of repertoire, as demonstrated at this concert. True, there was a trademark twentieth-century piece but I don’t recall that the music of Brahms and Schumann – the latter especially – was territory that Rattle traversed all that often in his Birmingham days. On tonight’s evidence he is now thoroughly at home in this repertoire.

I was impressed with Rattle’s 2008 Brahms symphony cycle for EMI so I was particularly keen to hear him in the Third symphony. Right from the start the richness of the VPO sound was apparent. However, while it was rich it wasn’t lacking in muscle in any way. I was delighted to see that Rattle had split the violins left and right. Not only did this mean that we got the antiphonal effects but also the cellos, positioned in front of the podium and slightly to the conductor’s right, gave a satisfying ‘middle’ to the orchestral sound. In fact I noticed on quite a number of occasions during the evening that Rattle was very keen to encourage both the cello and double bass sections to bring out their lines at crucial points. Rattle directed the first movement with an adroit mixture of energy and delicacy, his affection and enthusiasm for the music readily apparent. One of the most memorable passages in an engrossing reading was the development section to which he imparted a great surge of energy.

The pacing of the Andante seemed just right to me and Rattle’s habitual care over dynamics and contrasts paid dividends. He seemed to inject life into every phrase and his formidable attention to detail was evident throughout –and, indeed, throughout the whole concert – with beneficial effect. The sonority of the VPO – whether playing softly or loudly – was a delight in a glorious performance of this movement. As he did in his Berlin recording – taken from live performances – Rattle made no pause between the second and third movements. In this Poco allegretto the woodwind principals and first horn distinguished themselves with some fine solo work. There was scarcely a break either before Rattle launched into the finale. In the first half of the movement he galvanised the orchestra, who responded with some fabulously committed, urgent playing; this was real edge-of-the-seat stuff. The VPO must have played this symphony countless times – they gave the première in 1883 – but there was never the slightest hint of routine in this performance. The wonderful extended coda had a really golden glow to it though Rattle neatly balanced the autumnal feel against the need to keep the music moving forward. I’d love to hear him couple this symphony and Elgar’s Second in concert, not least because the coda of Elgar’s work is so clearly inspired by the coda of the Brahms, a work that Elgar regarded highly.

The second half began with Webern’s Six Orchestral Pieces. I’m not the man to comment on this performance in any detail because I’m afraid this music has never done anything for me; I fail to understand its fragmentary vocabulary and it leaves me cold. What I will say, however, is that if I must hear it then the evident clarity and precision of a performance such as this must be the best way in which to experience it. Rattle drew playing from the VPO that at times was incredibly delicate and, at others, full of power. Clearly my view of the Webern was a minority one for the performance was warmly received. I was intrigued to note that though this sort of music is second nature to Sir Simon this was the only one of the three works that he conducted from a score.

For the Schumann there was some reduction in the size of the strings – one desk less in each section. The first movement was played –and conducted – with energy, brio and good cheer; I loved the way the horns rang out heroically. At times the music fairly bounded along. In the past it was alleged by some that Schumann was a composer whose orchestral scoring was too thick; there was no evidence of that in this performance. The second movement had a nice outdoor feel to it; what I might call “cultivated rusticity”. It was clear that Rattle was thoroughly enjoying the music. He shaped the third movement beautifully and the VPO played it with great sensitivity. The fourth movement, inspired by Schumann’s visit to Cologne Cathedral was sonorous and noble and then, after this solemnity, Rattle figuratively took us out into the sunshine with a reading of the finale that radiated well-being and optimism. For myself, I would have preferred it if the two symphonies had been placed the other way around in the programme so that we finished with the Brahms but I can well understand Rattle’s decision to finish with the exaltation and happiness of Schumann’s finale.

I first saw Simon Rattle conduct in the 1970s when, near the very start of his career, he conducted the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in a typically ambitious all-Ravel programme (L’Enfant et les Sortilèges and the ballet Daphnis et Chloé). Since then I’ve been to many of his concerts and have always found his music making exciting and stimulating. This was yet another memorable Rattle evening.

On this occasion Rattle halted the prolonged ovation from the audience to give a very brief speech congratulating the city, its splendid concert hall and its musical public. Clearly Symphony Hall and the Birmingham audience still have a place in his heart. Equally, it’s obvious that he has a special place in Birmingham’s musical life and heritage, and rightly so.

John Quinn