Rattle and the LSO: Virtuosity in Testing Twentieth-Century Repertoire

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Webern, Berg, Ligeti and Stravinsky: Barbara Hannigan (soprano), London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 15.1.2015 (AS)

Webern: Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6b
Berg: Three Fragments from Wozzeck
Ligeti: Mysteries of the Macabre
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

The combination of Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra has unusual potency of interest, since speculation continues that Sir Simon will return to take a post in his homeland after leaving the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 2018. If so, will it be with the LSO, as is rumoured?

It seems a fair bet that Rattle will have had a strong hand in the choice of repertoire for his two January appearances with the orchestra, and the LSO’s management could rest content that whatever works he performed, good box office returns could be guaranteed. And so they will have had few qualms about the choice of Schumann’s rarely heard oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri for last Sunday’s concert (review) and a quartet of twentieth-century works for this occasion. Perhaps it is a little fanciful to imagine that Rattle might have set the LSO some tests; of the quality of the London Symphony Chorus in the Schumann work, and of the ability of the orchestra itself in the second concert’s four demanding works.

 The Barbican Hall was certainly full last night, except that seats had to be sacrificed to make room for three of the seven television cameras parked around the auditorium and behind the orchestra. They were there to transmit the concert live to screens across Europe, and to record it for future transmission. Fortunately the production, by the Mezzo media organisation, was carried out very unobtrusively.

 A slight disappointment awaited admirers of Webern’s work, since it proved not to be the original Six Pieces for Large Orchestra, Op. 6 of 1909, but the slightly slimmed down version entitled Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6b, made by the composer in 1928. As is so often the case with works later revised by their composers, Webern’s first thoughts were better, even if less practicable for the possibility of performance. But in either form, Opus 6 is the most overtly emotional of all the composer’s works, written as it was in the aftermath of his mother’s death, and incorporating the fourth-movement funeral march, which emerges from near silence into a shattering climax. This kind of music is meat and drink to Sir Simon’s Romantic soul, and he invested it with just the right kind of dark, rather forbidding and certainly deep feelings.

 Berg’s Three Fragments from Wozzeck inhabit a similar world of darkness and somewhat ironic despair. Here the LSO’s contribution was heavy with emotional weight and raw eloquence under Rattle’s urgent direction, so much so that it rather took the limelight away from the contribution of soprano Barbara Hannigan. Her commitment to the music was certainly evident, for her characterisation was strong, but she lacked the sheer vocal power needed to dominate the kaleidoscopic orchestral textures.

 After the interval Sir Simon strode on stage to conduct the somewhat smaller ensemble required for the brief Ligeti work. But as the music started where was the soloist? Soon Barbara Hannigan danced on to the scene in a dramatic entrance. Gone was her elegant gown worn for the Berg, and instead there she was in a tartan mini-skirt, with bare legs and long socks, apparently in the guise of a schoolgirl, and blowing bubble gum, which she thoughtfully arranged to be stuck to the stage floor by Sir Simon before she began to sing.

 Her garb seemed at odds with the character she was portraying. Mysteries of the Macabre is an arrangement by Elgar Howarth of the three coloratura arias from Ligeti’s opera Le grand macabre, sung by Gepopo, Chief of the Secret Police. But never mind. Hannigan’s performance, acted as well as sung, was an extraordinary tour de force of vocal virtuosity and magnetic personality. The orchestral members joined in with gusto, a few of them at one point tearing up newspapers and shouting out brief phrases. Sir Simon also had a few words to say to the audience, and for a brief sequence he ceded the conducting to Hannigan (who in fact is making a name for herself in this role) before roughly elbowing her aside. It was an absolute riot to behold and hear, and at the performance’s end the audience understandably shouted its delight.

 Fortunately lengthy platform changes gave us the chance to calm down a bit before the performance of The Rite of Spring. This was directed by Sir Simon without the score, which perhaps underlined the fact that the work has become such a regular repertoire item (perhaps at the expense of other Stravinsky masterpieces, which are now concert rarities). The performance was expertly shaped by Rattle, with lots of atmosphere at the beginnings of both parts of the work, and tempi in the faster passages that were just right at every point to underline the music’s irregular pulses and rhythms. This was especially the case in the concluding ‘Danse sacrale’, whose episodic rondo elements were strongly defined, up to and including the final climax. But there was one serious miscalculation. In the introduction to Part Two, muted trumpets take over the seven-note folk-like melody on three occasions: here they were made to scale back dynamics to near inaudibility, and an uncomfortable silence will no doubt have been experienced in the outer reaches of the hall. This I’m sure was at the behest of Sir Simon rather than the fault of the players.

 In general the playing of the LSO was immaculate in every respect, and fully deserved Rattle’s evident approval and the audience’s ovation. It’s not a new sentiment, but I wonder if the orchestra’s comfortable virtuosity meant that we have lost something in The Rite; should we be aware, as used to be the case, of the tension of an orchestra being tested to its limits in unfamiliar territory, of a struggle to get the notes right, with a few rough edges here and there? Or maybe we as audiences have lost the ability to be shocked by the ground-breaking elements of the piece.


Alan Sanders