A truly memorable performance of Mahler and Poulenc from Rattle, the BBC Singers and the LSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler, Poulenc – LSO’s Song of the Night: BBC Singers, London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 23.4.2023. (CC)

The London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle © Mark Allan

Mahler – Symphony No.7 in E minor (1904/05)

PoulencFigure humaine, FP 120 (1943/44)

A programme change, adding a piece to Mahler’s mighty Seventh Symphony, and not one but two speeches from Sir Simon Rattle. This can mean only one thing – he’s on the war path. The extra piece was Poulenc’s Figure humaine (as Rattle pointed out, Mahler did perform the Seventh with a shorter piece in a second part to the concert, allowing for something of a wind-down); the performers the BBC Singers, in the spotlight recently because of the governments ‘swingeing’ (Rattle’s word) cuts. Rattle did not bold back (his speech has been widely circulated) – and he is, of course, right.

But before the BBC Singers, Mahler’s mighty, and somewhat puzzling, Seventh Symphony. It has always been one of the least played of the Mahler symphonies. The finale is difficult and can sounds relentlessly bombastic. Michael White’s programme note for the Seventh reminded us that one movement will always, for listeners of a certain age (me included), be welded to an image of an oil drop slowly moving down an oil can in an advert for Castrol GTX.

But what a piece it is. I am sure I was not alone in the hall to have heard this live last time in September 2022, when Kirill Petrenko conducted Rattle’s old band the Berliner Philharmoniker, at the Proms (review click here). That was a barnstorming, all-encompassing performance. Rattle here at the Barbican, conducting from memory (quite an achievement in this piece!), clearly inspired the London Symphony Orchestra to the apex of their form. Principal horn Timothy Jones put not a foot wrong all night, wind solos were superb across the board (lovely to see a proper woodwind bells up too); while Peter Moore was the finest of solo trombonists. Only, perhaps, the violin solos of guest leader José Blumenschein failed to impress fully, not quite echt-Mahlerian, not quite fully involved. Rattle’s ear for detail is astonishing, but most importantly of all this was no Rolls Royce super-orchestra reading. The jerky moments Mahler injects were really quite disturbing, the grotesque ones perhaps even more so.

Two ‘Nachtmusik’ movements frame the central Scherzo (there are five movements). Interesting that Rattle asked for a staccato dotted-quaver in the opening horn solo, a remarkable gesture that completely reframed the theme into something not just shadowy but also nightmarish; both Timothy Jones statements and the ‘echoes’ courtesy of Olivia Gandee were superb. Contrasts in this movement were near-hallucinogenic, veering at one point towards a phantasmagorical, distorted fairy tale – Grimm through a fairground mirror, perhaps? The Scherzo only acted as a prolongation of this netherworld – one almost forgot about the LSO’s consummate virtuosity, so entrancing the journey. A word here for the solo viola contributions from Jane Atkins – quite simply some of the finest viola playing I have ever heard, brilliantly projected, perfectly  in tune and perfectly, too, of Mahler.

The second ‘Nachmusik’ was interesting – it is marked Andante amoroso, but here had a roiling, unsettled aspect, not to mention some positively monolithic moments. And then … that finale, brass absolutely resplendent as a unit crowned by the searing trumpet of James Fountain. The woodwind choir were perfectly on point in this movement, working as a unit at times; from a conductor’s perspective, shifts from one section to another (including tempo changes) were the work of a master. Rattle understands the gestural nature of this movement – he does not feel the need to emphasise any perceived ‘bombast’ or shallowness, instead allowing the work to speak eloquently for itself, grounding the experience at points in some properly chthonic double basses.

A remarkable account and the Poulenc was just as impressive, but in a much more restrained way. Composed in the 1940s, Poulenc sets texts by his friend Paul Éluard (from Poésie et Verité), texts which became associated with the French Resistance, particularly the poem ‘Liberté’ (Liberty) which closes Poulenc’s cycle. Scored for double choir, the piece is full of modal harmonies, and occasionally jazz casts a shadow. The piece was intended for performance in Paris, but instead it fell to the BBC Singers to premiere it in London in 1945.

The BBC Singers and Sir Simon Rattle © Mark Allan

This 2023 performance was a consummate account by the BBC Singers. Contrasts in the first movement, ‘Bientôt’ were finely drawn; at other times, the texture could thin, perfectly and with total breath control from the choir. Never once did harmonies muddy (particularly well achieved in the sixth song, ‘Un Loup’ – A wolf) Another aspect of the BBC Singers’ virtuosity shone forth in ‘Le rôle des femmes’ in the opening’s speed (and the control of the soprano’s upper register at the radiant close). The deep stillness of ‘Aussi bas que le silence’ (As deep as the silence) was a thing of purest beauty, its dark text as disturbing as Poulenc’s harmonic process. Still this might have been; peaceful, it was not. That fell to the gentle waftings of the opening of ’Patience’ before the jolly antiphony of ‘Première Marche, La Voix d’un autre’ (First March, the Voice of Another), as accurate a performance as one could hope to hear of this difficult movement that, here, ended with a choral shout.

The angularity of the opening of the seventh movement, ’Un feu sans tache’ (A flawless fire), its execution impeccable, somehow found its way to blazing consonance by its end. But it was the finale, ‘Liberté’ (Liberty) that truly shone. How pure were the sopranos in the opening line, how hypnotic the initial repetitions of the line ’J’écris ton nom’ (I write your name). Slowly, these repetitions built towards the final statement of ‘Liberté’ with its crowning, incredibly high, soprano.

A truly memorable performance. And, it turns out, a second part to the concert after Mahler’s Seventh does work, after all.

Colin Clarke

Leave a Comment