Sound without limits: Rattle and the LSO at the Barbican

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Berlioz, Takemitsu, Ravel, Sibelius, Bartók: Peter Moore (trombone), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 15.9.2022. (CS)

Peter Moore (c) Kevin Leighton

BerliozLe corsair, Overture
TakemitsuFantasma/Cantos II
RavelLa valse
Sibelius – Symphony No.7 in C major
BartókThe Miraculous Mandarin, Suite

The second concert of the London Symphony Orchestra’s 2022-23 season was titled Sound Without Limits, and a fitting designation it was too for a programme of stunning coloristic range, which contrasted exuberance with both calm introspection and brooding profundity, and was played with immense style and freedom.

It’s always pleasing when a member of an orchestra gets the opportunity to shine in the soloist’s spot, though star trombonist Peter Moore, winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Year at just 12 years old, and now, at 26, Principal Trombone of the LSO and Professor of Trombone at the Royal Academy of Music, is no stranger to the limelight.  His performance of George Walker’s Trombone Concerto with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Vasily Petrenko at this year’s Proms – the first trombone concerto at the Proms for almost two decades – wowed and won over audience and critics alike.  The Times described Moore’s sound as ‘extruding hot lyricism’ and admired the ‘subtleties of tone colour’ and phrasings that ‘engaged the ear’, while The Daily Telegraph suggested that he ‘married the elegance of a ballroom dancer with the lyrical tenderness of a violinist’.

Tōru Takemitsu’s Fantasma/Cantos II (1984) seems almost deliberately designed to showcase such elegance and Moore’s cantabile lyricism.  It was inspired by the landscape gardens of the Japanese Edo period.  In the words of the composer: ‘You walk along the path, stopping here and there to contemplate, and eventually find yourself back where you started from.  Yet it is no longer the same starting point.’  A melody is repeated, gradually mutating with each repetition, and accompanied by ever-changing orchestral textures and hues, thereby capturing a shifting vision of the garden as artificial hills, ponds and islands are viewed from different perspectives.  The trombone’s song – or ‘cantos’ – thus translates a visual narrative into a melodic journey, pushing forward in time, while the orchestra’s precisely etched aural images conjure a timeless ‘fantasma’, a vague dreaminess.

Rattle respected the delicacy of Takemitsu’s sensitivity to colour and gesture, gently and preciously coaxing the shifting moods from the LSO instrumentalists – a small string section, single woodwind (with bass clarinet), horns, harp and percussion – and spun impressionistic threads that recalled Debussy and Messiaen.  Against this contemplative sonic canvas, Moore’s long-phrased song was beautifully tender and restful.  Playing with remarkable poise and restraint, at times he imbued the melody with a prayer-like quality.  The way that the trombonist was able to change the quality – the weight, colour, mood – of a note or phrase, while maintaining a serene line was utterly captivating.  There were moments of lightness, even humour, too, in the trombone’s exchanges with the orchestra, and smeary glissandi and an occasional rhythmic sway added a feeling of swing – at the premiere of the work, Takemitsu recalled Dixieland jazz player Jack Teagarden, whom he had heard in his youth.  There was eeriness, through the experimentation with new sounds using several different mutes; the trombone’s whisper against the orchestral shimmer was haunting.  The consonance of the close was wonderfully peaceful.

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the LSO in Takemitsu’s Fantasma/Cantos II (c) Kevin Leighton

Moore was also in the spotlight in Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony, the first trombone’s three statements of the ‘motto theme’ underpinning the architecture of the single-movement work.  Responding sensitively to the orchestral landscape from which the theme emerges, Moore infused the trombone’s melody with nobility and elegance, though here the lyricism was matched by the instrument’s characteristic power and strength.  Rattle pushed forwards hard towards the first statement, and there was a terrific sense of release with the third and final utterance.

This was an urgent and, I felt, quite swift reading of the symphony from Rattle.  The LSO strings were back to full numbers, and at the start the eight double basses, syncopated against the scalic ascent in the higher strings, created a compelling upward force, energising the opening gesture.  Rattle paid ceaseless attention to the strings throughout, coaxing and encouraging, and even the quietest divisi passages were warm and full, against which woodwind textures seemed lean and gestures crisp and lithe.  I’d have liked a little more spaciousness of phrasing at times – in the development of the theme’s ‘turn motif’, for example, by flutes and bassoons, before the pochettino meno adagio episode which leads into the Vivacissimo scherzo section – but Rattle seemed determined to drive the syncopations onwards and whip up tremendous impetus.  And, through the chromatic string scales which draw the tempo back to Adagio he created a terrific tension from which the second statement of the trombone theme could emerge, as if half-seen through the mists, the seemingly insignificant accompaniment exploited as a driving force.  It was a lovely moment when the clouds cleared for the second scherzo, Allegro molto moderato.  I’m not sure that this is the reading I’d want on my desert island, but it was exciting to hear the disturbing currents of the symphony rendered with such dramatic energy, and amid such turbulence the trombone’s climactic statement was even more affirmative and consoling.

The other items in the programme offered flamboyance to counter the philosophical reflections.  Rattle didn’t overdo the punchiness of the flashy thrust of the sword which opens Berlioz’s Corsair Overture, focusing instead on the warmth of the string sound and, also, the delicate nuances of the harmonies.  He seemed intent to draw out all the score’s emotions, and there was a real sense of ‘adventure’ – a dramatic escapade.  The LSO fiddlers had no problem racing through the tricky unisons and the cellos and double basses were nimble on their feet.  The final return of the theme had a cocksure Bryonic swagger which made one smile.

Ravel’s La valse sounded like a different work to that I heard performed by Thomas Dausgaard and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at the Proms – and that’s not the BBC SSO’s fault, but rather the muddiness of the Royal Albert Hall’s acoustic.  At the Barbican, all was crystal clear.  Double basses and bassoons were fittingly sinister at the start, teasing us with a hint of a beat, while the violas swirled woozily as Rattle conjured sudden bursts of colour from the percussion.  The dance retained its classical grace, and while the details were meticulously articulated there was never any loss of momentum, and cross-rhythms were fantastically taut and propulsive.

The LSO saved their best till last.  Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin was based upon a garish magazine story by Melchior Lengye and this performance of the Suite from that ‘grotesque pantomime’ told that violent, lurid tale brilliantly.  The opening street scene was wild and furious, the clarinet’s seductive solos sultry and sexy – principal clarinettist Chris Richards fully deserved being pulled to his feet by Rattle at the close; the flute’s dance, a calm after the storm, was deceptively pure and elegant.  The LSO effortlessly dealt with the score’s formidable technical demands.  The Mandarin’s pursuit of the girl at the close was a fugue of ferociousness – and, here, there was more terrifically terrifying playing from Moore and his fellow trombonists.  Rattle balanced barbarism and beauty; magnificence and seediness.  Sound without limits, indeed.

Claire Seymour

Leave a Comment