United Kingdom Messiaen, Bruckner: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), London Symphony Orchestra/ Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 14.4.2016. (RB)
Messiaen: Couleurs de la cité céleste
Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 in C Minor (revised edition 1889-90, ed Robert Haas)
The LSO were joined by their Music Director-designate, Sir Simon Rattle, for their third concert this season of music by Messiaen and Bruckner. The principal work on the programme was Bruckner’s monumental C Minor Symphony. In the first half, the distinguished French pianist, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, joined Rattle and a small group of LSO players for Messiaen’s Couleurs de la cité céleste. Messiaen and Bruckner were devout Roman Catholics and both these works can be seen as expressions of their faith albeit in radically different ways.
Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony is his last completed symphony and like the others it is an enormous cathedral of sound which is rich and intricate in detail. There are numerous versions of the work: Bruckner wrote the first and longest version in 1887 but revised it in 1890 on the advice of the conductor Hermann Levi. The musicologist, Robert Haas, published a further version of the symphony in 1939: Haas based his work on the composer’s 1890 autograph although he incorporated elements from the 1887 version particularly in the Adagio and Finale to the work. Interestingly, Rattle and the LSO decided to use the Haas version for this performance. There is an argument that Bruckner may have discarded too much of the original version because of his own insecurities and that Haas was right to reinsert some of this material.
For any performance of Bruckner’s gargantuan Eighth Symphony to succeed the conductor must convey the breadth of the landscape and architectural cohesion whilst also having an eye to the intricate detail and Rattle certainly delivered on both fronts, particularly in the first two movements. The layout of the orchestra was intriguing: Rattle decided to split the violins to enhance the antiphonal writing in the symphony and he placed the cellos next to the first violins. Harps and timpani were placed on either side of the orchestra while the eight double bass players were right at the back behind the brass. I am not entirely clear why he decided on this layout but it worked well as the coordination and balance of sound was excellent throughout the performance.
Rattle coaxed dark colours and long expressive phrases from the strings in the epic first movement with its death motif. He ensured the tempi remained flexible while keeping an eye on the detail as new threads were picked up and woven into the ongoing musical narrative. The searing climaxes were reinforced magnificently by the brass who remained on superlative form throughout the evening. The final pianissimo passage symbolising ‘the dying of the light’ was brilliantly handled by the LSO’s low woodwind and strings. Feathery strings ushered in the mighty scherzo which Rattle allowed to build in power and momentum. The music built to a bracing and invigorating climax which was powerfully underscored by timpani and brass – Rattle beamed at his players from the podium, clearly enjoying the engulfing rush and sweep of the music. We moved seamlessly to the trio where the pastoral mood was captured to perfection by the LSO’s woodwind and brass. The harps blended in beautifully, creating some delicate sonorities.
It is difficult to imagine a better performance of the first two movements of the symphony but I was slightly less convinced by the Adagio and Finale. In the Adagio the strings sustained the long lines beautifully and the players produced some gorgeous, opulent harmonies and luminous textures. The harmonic shifts were deftly handled by Rattle but somehow this movement seemed to drag on somewhat and it did not quite have the overarching structural coherence of the earlier movements. The initial call to arms which opens the finale was a powerful, highly energised piece of playing. Rattle and the LSO captured the seriousness of the music and the brass once again did a superb job in capturing the sense of elemental awe in the score. Rattle coaxed an impressive range of dynamics from the LSO, particularly in the final section of the movement which opened very softly but built to a blazing, effulgent climax. Once again, however, I slightly lost sight of the wider landscape with the criss-crossing of Bruckner’s multiple themes. Rattle’s conducting remained masterful and much of the playing was superb so it is difficult to analyse precisely why these movements were not more convincing. I wondered if my misgivings might have more to do with the fact that Rattle and the LSO were working with the Haas version of the symphony which lacks the structural tightness of the composer’s 1890 version and is perhaps more difficult to bring off in concert.
The opening work in the concert was Messiaen’s Couleurs de la cité céleste which the composer wrote in 1963 following a request for a new work from South-West German Radio. The work is scored for trombones, percussion, trumpets, horns, clarinets and solo piano. It uses bird calls, plainsong alleluias, and ancient Indian rhythms and contains five citations from the Biblical book of Revelations. Rattle’s hand gestures were very precise in this work and the entries were well coordinated. The three xylophone players were particularly impressive in their tightly synchronised entries while Pierre-Laurent Aimard gave us crystalline, brilliantly articulated bird calls. The brass and clarinet players provided an array of colours while Rattle succeeded in coaxing some extraordinary sonic shocks from the assembled players, brilliantly conveying John’s the Divine’s apocalyptic vision.
Overall, this was an evening of first rate playing from the LSO particularly the brass (in the Bruckner) and percussionists (in the Messiaen). Rattle clearly enjoys an excellent rapport with the players so I hope their relationship will continue to move from strength to strength.