United Kingdom Vaughan Williams, Grainger, Bruckner: London Symphony Orchestra, Guildhall School musicians / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 21.6.2019. (AS)
Vaughan Williams – Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Grainger – Lincolnshire Posy
Bruckner – Symphony No.4 in E flat, Romantic
This was a most unusual concert in that it involved a total of 87 students from the Guildhall School of Music playing alongside LSO members – literally so, since in the string sections, for instance, each desk was shared between a LSO member and a student. Truth to tell, the LSO was not at full strength. Several of the principals were missing: the highly experienced American violinist Sharon Roffman was guest leader and Jane Atkins made a welcome return to lead the viola section. And LSO representation in the string sections was slightly under par numerically. But the presence of the students meant that far larger than normal orchestral forces occupied the platform for all three works.
This was the third combined LSO/Guildhall concert conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, following two given in 2016 and 2017, and what a splendid idea it is to give young players such a high-level experience. To be sure, we didn’t hear the usual LSO sound, but the quality of the playing was such as to justify the usual level of ticket pricing for the orchestra’s Barbican series.
To have a body of around 83 string players in the Tallis Fantasia was quite special, of course. Rattle conducted a most beautiful performance of this work, its undulating swells of melodic expression perfectly judged. The sound itself was impressive at full tilt, and the big climax towards the end of the piece sounded thrilling, but Rattle judged the changing dynamics of the work perfectly, allowing the contributions of the smaller ensemble at the back of the orchestra, and also those of the section leader quartet to make full contrasting effect.
Then the string players left the stage, to be replaced by a wind band of maybe 60 players. Sir Simon has consistently demonstrated his affection for Grainger’s music throughout his career, and here was a great chance for him to realise the composer’s inspiration on the grandest scale. How Grainger himself would have loved to hear his pungent arrangements of six songs he had collected from old folk singers years before rendered thus. Scoring for wind bands was one of his great skills. The variety of timbre that Rattle was able to obtain from his huge ensemble was startling and quite profound in its effect. He also managed to convey the sense of brooding unease that seems to lie under Grainger’s harmonic palette.
We were told that the edition of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony played was the ‘second version 1877-78, ed Nowak 1953 with 1880 finale’. In order to avoid the wrath of Bruckner scholars perhaps it would be best to leave it at that, but truth to tell it didn’t sound very different from the Haas version familiar through old recordings. In any event, the work was played by an ensemble of around 130 players, and the aural effects produced, especially by the lower string sections, were magnificently sonorous. Yet when it was needed, Rattle was able to reduce the sound to a rapt pianissimo, and a balance was struck in which woodwind solos were always enabled to shine through the massive main ensemble.
Throughout the work, Rattle guided his forces with impeccable taste and skill. The first movement was allowed to unfold quite naturally and expressively. All the episodes were immaculately shaped and paced, and the final climax was a mighty roar. The sound produced by the augmented viola and cello sections in the Andante had magnificent warmth: the whole movement was beautifully put together, and the quiet ending had a particularly poignant quality. A jaunty account of the Scherzo, with a lovely rustic-sounding trio section was succeeded by a most unusual degree of tension generated at the quiet beginning of the finale, the energy of the main section finally released with joyous affirmation. Not only did Rattle inspire his student players, particularly, but the eagerness and youthful freshness of their response – initial indications of nerves by now completely banished – seemed in turn to inspire him, and it was a potent combination. The emotionally pent-up playing in the mystery-laden build-up to the work’s ending seemed to suggest that something very special was about to happen, and so it proved to be. That final climax had a particularly triumphal quality and formed a perfect end to a memorable evening.