Sir Simon Rattle Celebrates Bernstein’s Centenary in a Mixed Programme

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United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2018 [6] – Bernstein, Dvořák and Janáček: Krystian Zimerman (piano), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 10.8.2018. (GT)

Bernstein – Symphony No.2, ‘Age of Anxiety’

DvořákSlavonic Dances Op.72


This the first of a pair of concerts marks the return of Sir Simon Rattle to the Edinburgh International Festival after many years, and his first here at the helm of the London Symphony Orchestra following fourteen years in charge of the Berlin Philharmonic. It was appropriate he should conduct works by composers that are best suited to him, and of course to mark the birth centenary of one of the 20th century’s great musicians Leonard Bernstein. To match Bernstein’s Second Symphony with works by Czech composers was perplexing but like much of Rattle’s programming nothing less than entertaining for Edinburgh audiences.

Based on W. H. Auden’s Age of Anxiety, this work composed in six parts but divided into two movements, the piece employs a piano throughout as if in dialogue between orchestra and soloist. The Prologue opened on two clarinets, echo-tone and followed by a long descending scale like a bridge into the realm of the unconscious, where most of the poem resides. This soulful passage was picked up on the cellos, and the piano enters offering hope, while the cellos present a forceful idea, picked up by the brass and following the Prologue, the whole orchestra enter for the first of a set of seven variations – The Seven Ages. In the second, a quite wonderful theme is announced by the violins before we heard a quartet of strings. Suddenly, a playful idea is heard on the piano with echoes of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, and a descent into an eerie stillness and then a return to the first idea again on the clarinets and a rather pensive theme on the piano. In the third section, with the second group of variations – The Seven Stages, it all seemed a little bit fragmented with sudden explosions from the full orchestra and constant switches in tempo and a marvellously well executed toccata-like passage from Krystian Zimerman on the keyboard.

In Part Two, the dirge opened on the piano with a meditative idea, and later the horns announced an idea evocative of Mussorgsky and Stravinsky. Following an idiomatic passage there exploded impassioned jazz on the piano, prolonged with accompaniment on percussion and double-bass and a return to sombre and austere idiom on the strings, and tension from the piano and in the Epilogue; a build to a great climactic culmination. This was a fine performance well appreciated by the full house, albeit one can understand why this is so infrequently performed, very much from Bernstein’s youthful period.

In recent years when he was in Berlin, Sir Simon frequently programmed Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances and here their inclusion seemed a bit strange. Dvořák’s Op.72 set are richly embroidered in Slavic folklore, stunningly orchestrated, among the most glorious of their kind in any collection of dances.  The opening Odzemek (No.1) from Slovakian folklore was bright, and upbeat with bewitching playing from the flute of Amy-Jayne Milton. The Starodávný (No.2) was swooning in its romanticism, gaiety and charm, while the Skočná (No.3) was clearly Czech in its grandeur, not without being pompous in its brisk folk dance. Another Dumka (No.4) was pastoral in its gentle rhythms, again wonderful playing from the flute matched by the clarinet of Andrew Marriner. Another Czech dance Špacirka (No.5) was a waltz swirling in its gaiety, and its catchy folk tune, heaving with expectation in its energy. The polonaise (No.6) was charming in its lyricism and the gentle rocking theme embroidered with colours from the woodwind and elegiac on the strings. The Serbian Kolo folk tune (No.7) was brisk and had a beautiful melody heard on the woodwind and picked by the whole orchestra earning a burst of applause before the end. The final number, Sousedská (No.8) was beautifully romantic on the strings, and showed affinities with Strauss waltzes, again outstanding playing from the flute of Amy-Jayne Milton, before it closed on a gentle note.

Janáček’s Sinfonietta is to my mind among the great orchestral showpieces of the 20th century, ranking with the greatest works by Stravinsky, Bartók and Prokofiev. The opening fanfare heard from the nine trumpets standing above the orchestra accompanied by timpani initiated this masterpiece in magnificent glory. The emphasis here reveals its origins as a piece for a military brass band, and premiered by Talich and the Czech Philharmonic at the Sokol Rally in 1926. It is astonishing that this was written by a seventy-one year old composer, obviously still at his peak, and during an important period when he was in love with Kamilla Stösslová. Following the stirring fanfare, the Andante (The Castle) began with a brisk ostinato from the woodwind and a colourful passage from strings strangely evocative of the old Spielberg prison castle in Brno. The third movement (The Queens’s Monastery) was heard first on the strings rather pensively, then picked up by the trombones with a robust idea before closing with a brisk dance passage. The Allegretto (The Street to the Castle) evokes a busy thoroughfare with a fanfare on trumpets leading to the finale (The Town Hall) with the return of the wonderful fanfare which opened this startling piece, but conversely, and supported by the strings and wind bringing it to superbly exciting culmination. It was a tremendous performance by Sir Simon and his virtuoso players, and this Czech piece stood head and shoulders over the rest of this curious programme, but when you witness a world class orchestra at the top of their game, it makes it all worthwhile, and they seemed to enjoy the massive ovation at the end. This – the shortest of the three works performed – was by far the most successful; the most enjoyable in a curiously assembled programme.

Gregor Tassie

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