Exhilarating Szymanowski from Janine Jansen and the LSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Janáček, Szymanowski, Sibelius: Janine Jansen (violin), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 19.9.2018. (CS)

Janine Jansen
Janine Jansen

Szymanowski – Violin Concerto No.1
Sibelius – Symphony No.5 Op.82

The capital is abuzz with the opening of new exhibitions, the commencement of concert seasons and the unveiling of opera house refurbishments.  This wasn’t my first visit to the Barbican Centre this autumn – ‘opening night’ found me in the Barbican Theatre, watching Donnacha Dennehy and Enda Walsh’s new opera The Second Violinist – but it was my first orchestral concert in the Barbican Hall.  And, there was certainly an expectant, exciting mood at this performance by Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra – their third of the week.

While the triptych began with an all-English programme, Rattle continued the LSO’s exploration of the season’s larger theme, Roots and Origins, with three works which pay homage to and are inspired by the places and landscapes, literature and myths of their composers’ homelands, and which were written in a ten-year period in the early twentieth century.

There’s surely no more thrilling ode with which to open a concert than Janáček’s Sinfonietta (1926), a sort of Moravian ‘Ride to the Valkyries’. Composed for a ‘gymnastic festival’ (which represented the underlying principle of the Sokol movement founded in Prague in 1862 by Miroslav Tyrš and Jindřich Fügner, – ‘a strong mind in a sound body’), the Sinfonietta is a joyous and distinctively quirky celebration of youthful strength, the composer’s birthplace Brno, Slavic culture and nationhood. The eleven trumpeters arrayed at the rear of the LSO were also a reminder of the military context of the work whose fanfares were based on Janáček’s recollection of the performance by a military band in a park in the south Bohemian town of Písek.

The opening salutes of the two tenor tubas and pair of bass trumpets had a deliciously nasal tang against the dry rhythmic riposte of the timpani, played with a wooden stick, but while the rhythms were taut, the sound was lithe and buoyant rather than rigid. There was never a laddish-ness about the brazen brass, just the occasional teasing hint of wildness. Rattle relished the floods of sound and the juxtapositions of the mosaic-like structure, conjuring diverse tone colours and emotional extremes. In ‘The Castle, Brno’, the violins’ oscillations – so familiar from the composer’s quartets – were diaphanous and delicate, allowing the woodwind solos to float softly; later, given full reign in the soaring melodies, the strings produced a beautifully warm and full tone, and Rattle opened up vast vistas as the violins crested the clouds above the resonant deep celli and basses. Conducting from memory, he led us through the landmarks of Brno. Harp, bass clarinet and muted strings showed us the serene gravity of the Queen’s monastery, though the trombones and tuba grumbled ominously. The trumpets tried to keep order in ‘The Street Leading to the Castle’ but the strings increasingly ignored the fanfare’s command, their prestissimo pizzicatos racing riotously. The bronzed blaze of the full brass ensemble when we reached ‘The Town Hall’ was simply glorious.

Eyes shining, smile beaming, Sir Simon lowered his baton, turned to leader Roman Simovic and uttered a single word: ‘Wow!’. That said it all, really, and there was more to marvel at in Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto in which Dutch violinist Janine Jansen proved an astonishingly composed and authoritative soloist, combining a fervent and focused intensity – deepened by a wide, fast vibrato – with articulation of breath-taking delicacy.

Szymanowski’s Concerto, composed in 1916, shares with the Sinfonietta a structure formed from short contrasting sections and this, as much as the fearsome technical demands made of the soloist, is the real challenge of the work: how to make the shimmering mysteries, Stravinskian rhythmic riffs and aching post-Romantic lyricism which alternate with seemingly reckless rapidity cohere into a convincing whole. Well, first, it seems, you find yourself a soloist of Jansen’s unwavering poise and with the ability to embrace and control the music’s mercurial restlessness. From her opening stratospheric flights, Jansen’s tone was pure, her projection direct and her negotiation of the work’s volcanic virtuosities and fanciful forays equally commanding.

Rattle encouraged the large orchestral forces to produce a rich, large sound, and occasionally as she balanced on a high-wire Jansen’s silvery thread struggled to cut through the instrumental expanse, but the precision of her playing was marvellously persuasive and her tone somehow combined steel and silk. The Concerto is thought to have been influenced by the poetry of Szymanowski’s contemporary, Tadeusz Miciński – the music’s sonorities seem to embody the strange symbolist imagery of the poet’s ‘May Night’, (‘Noc majowa’) – and in the quieter passages Jansen found eeriness, magic and delicacy, soaring ethereally above an anchoring pedal from the harp and translucent woodwind windings. The cadenza was ruthless and gritty, with a terrific edginess and just the right touch of abrasiveness to the bite. This was a truly exhilarating performance that obviously gave Jansen as much pleasure as it did the audience in the Hall.

Rattle’s beloved Sibelius concluded the concert. I was fortunate to be able to hear several of the concerts at the Barbican Hall in 2015 in which Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker presented the composer’s complete symphonies and have listened to the subsequently released live recordings many times. Looking back at my review of the Berliners’ performance of the Fifth Symphony (1919) I see that I was impressed as much by the intellectual probing that the performance communicated, and inspired, as by the beauty and power of the playing – though the latter qualities were certainly not negligible. This time round, quite simply I was on the edge of my seat, lifted by the sheer vividness of the emotive sonic pictorialism and the sense of sincere, committed celebration of this music that the LSO and Rattle communicated.

The journey from mystery to majesty was utterly compelling. The horn’s call and bassoons’ response of the opening bars seemed to sail to us direct from the still centre of a Scandinavian forest, while the timpani’s quiet trembling had a primordial and prophetic air. Vast open spaces unfolded, carrying us across landscapes and through narratives, as Rattle turned motionlessness into movement, seemingly static patterns evolving into such an organic, unstoppable impetus that by the ‘Scherzo’ we were surfing on a magic carpet of joy.

Rattle again conducted from memory; indeed, he didn’t so much as ‘conduct’ – there weren’t many indications of a ‘beat’ as such – as guide his players through a landscape that they know so well and love. But, that’s not to suggest that there was no laser-vision or attention to detail: time and again I was surprised when a gesture or glance flew lightly but commandingly in the direction of a particular player or section, with minimal means but immediate effect, coaxing a little more colour, weight, import.

The horns’ rapturous embodiment of the sixteen airborne Whooper swans that Sibelius saw in 1915 – and which prompted him to record in his diary, ‘One of the great experiences of my life!  God, how beautiful’ – was truly uplifting. Though the slow rolling of the harmonic pendulum can sometimes serve to restrain the forward rush of the Finale, here it seemed as if we all simply took off in flight.

And, as if that hadn’t been enough emotional surfeit for one evening, there was more to come when Sir Simon returned to the podium and announced the retirement of first violinist and sub-leader Lennox Mackenzie, who joined the LSO in 1980. In a sincere tribute, Rattle recalled the welcome offered by Mackenzie when the conductor arrived in London to take up his current role of Music Director: ‘I hope that the LSO give you as much happiness as it has done for me, for my entire working life.’ Rattle offered his own recipocral thanks, ‘Bless you, old friend,’ as he led the violinist from the stage, for the last time. There can’t have been a dry eye in the house.

Claire Seymour

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