United Kingdom Bartók and Bruckner: London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Barbican Hall, Barbican Centre, London, 20.1.2019. (AS)
Bartók – Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, Sz.106
Bruckner – Symphony No.6 in A (Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs Urtext Edition)
After the first London performance of this programme on 13 January, Rattle and the LSO played it on four consecutive evenings in Budapest, Warsaw, Wrocław and Kracow. If conductor and orchestra were given a two-day break from it before the sixth performance on 20 January, they certainly earned it.
Travel difficulties caused me to miss the Bartók work at the first London perfromance, so I was grateful for the chance to hear it at the second one. There was absolutely no trace of staleness or fatigue in a quite wonderful presentation of this score. Though it is one of Bartók’s finest works, it is very approachable on account of its folksong elements, its pungent rhythms and of course the intriguing sounds produced by the unusual combination of instruments and the division of the strings into two antiphonal groups. In bringing out all of these unique characteristics Rattle was entirely successful, as he was in projecting the slow mysterious fugue of the first movement, which builds to an astringent climax, also the bouncy rhythms of the second Allegro, the sinister nocturnal mood of the Adagio, and the bursting energy of the final Allegro molto. And it wasn’t just colour and energy that Rattle found in the score, for he unerringly found and pointed the sophisticated accents in which it abounds: and he strongly and effectively brought out the authentic nature of Bartók’s rhythms, which are tautly held together but which also seem, paradoxically, to have a free spirit. We might have been listening to a performance by one of the great Hungarian conductors of the past – Ferenc Fricsay or Fritz Reiner, for instance. The LSO’s playing was dazzlingly virtuosic.
The version of the Bruckner symphony that Rattle conducted was that named above in the titling. Stephen Johnson’s programme note explained that after the work’s composition Bruckner ‘made adjustments to articulation markings and in places clarified textures, which are here included for the first time in a published score. The changes may be subtle, but they bring us closer to what Bruckner actually had in mind when he conceived this fascinatingly, remarkable original symphony’. But wait a minute. An Urtext is by definition an original. So, if Cohrs has included Bruckner’s adjustments, however minor, then his edition is not Urtext. And if Bruckner made changes to the score, they took it further away from his original thoughts, not closer to them. In the event, no knowledgeable listener I consulted after either London performance had detected any aural changes in the music.
Both London performances, though played at either end of a series of six, were remarkably consistent, and movement timings were very similar. There may have been, understandably, a very slight loss of spontaneity in the second, but both showed the very high standard of playing one expects of this orchestra, and Rattle’s conducting was unfailingly electric and highly communicative throughout. He maintained a strong, driving pulse throughout the first movement, dovetailing its various components with great skill. There was complete clarity and the sense, as there should be, of an overriding, linking arch. The Adagio flowed beautifully, with some lovely playing from the LSO strings, and the movement’s long-breathed melodies were somehow invested with a very touching quality of repose and dignity. The tempi for the Scherzo and Trios were very well calculated, and as in the first movement Rattle held the diverse content of the Finale together very successfully. His basic tempo was quite brisk, but it didn’t seem too hurried. Overall it was quite a ‘modern’ performance, without the expansive speeds and expressive lingerings of the old-school Bruckner conductors. Perhaps great music such as this can take different kinds of approach, each of them valid, provided that the basic elements of the score are faithfully protected.
Listeners to the second concert were rewarded with an encore, a Polish dance from Moniuszko’s opera Halka, which had been played as an extra to appreciative audiences on tour as a two-hundredth centenary tribute to the composer’s birth in 1819.