Ever since Sir Simon Rattle announced that he would be leaving his post as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 2018, speculation has been rife as to where he will lift his baton next. The London Symphony Orchestra is currently a key contender; the orchestra has responded to enquiries with only a ‘no comment’, meaning that there is a glimmer of hope to hang on to.
I found myself attentively searching for clues during the concert that might suggest a decision had already been made, but to no avail. This was Rattle’s first appearance with the orchestra since their cameo at the opening of the Olympic Games in 2012. He has frequently spoken highly of the orchestra in interviews and it was evident as he entered the hall that they enjoy a warm rapport.
The concert opened with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, dubbed by Joseph Joachim as the “greatest, most uncompromising” German violin concerto. I had, to this point, laboured under the misapprehension that I found the opening movement dull and unengaging. Frequently spanning more than 25 minutes, the first movement is double the length of the final two combined and opens mysteriously with five beats of the timpani. Whilst it had always seemed meandering in previous performances I have seen, Rattle and soloist Veronika Eberle shaped the sublime ebb and flow of the movement beautifully. The Larghetto was warm and spacious, and the LSO produced some startlingly tender pianissimi. Eberle’s Stradivarius lived up to its reputation and her musicality matched its rich, golden tone. The finale brimmed with vitality so powerful that I was suddenly struck by how reminiscent this movement is of the third movement “Merry gathering of country folk” of the Pastoral Symphony.
The second half opened with the unexpected presentation of Honorary Membership of the Royal Philharmonic Society to Martin Campbell-White, Rattle’s agent, prompting two brief, but heartfelt speeches from both. Campbell-White has managed Rattle’s career since the 1970s and Rattle expressed his happiness that he “finally got the chance to say thank you”.
The programme demonstrated Rattle’s knack for rewarding programming, and the second work was Henze’s Being Beauteous, which can be best described as a secular cantata for coloratura soprano, four cellos and a harp. The text is taken from Arthur Rimbaud’s Les Illumniations, however the words are rendered mostly unintelligible due to the extremely high vocal line which is further peppered with glissandi. However, Rattle had advised we read the text before the piece started and as this is symbolist poetry, it is perhaps not so important to understand every single word but to understand the aesthetic Rimbaud and Henze wanted to create. The writing for the four cellos produced a surprisingly varied sound, so much so, that it could be believed at times they were simply a normally-configured string quartet playing at their lowest registers. Soprano Anna Prohaska’s voice is beautifully pure, and she performed this monstrously challenging work with an effortless that belied the fact that the notes jump from middle C to nearly two and half octaves above, with very little help with pitching in the accompaniment.
The concert closed, in a last-minute change to the programme, with Schumann’s Symphony no. 2 in C major, the majority of which was written during a bout of depression in 1845. It replaced Brahms’ Symphony no. 4. We can only speculate as to why, but this work is considered to encapsulate the classic Beethovian symphonic journey of triumph over adversity and thus complemented the opening piece. What made this performance so special was the care Rattle placed on shaping every phrase and idea. A particular highlight came in the second movement, a brief, buoyant phrase is passed around the string section, every time this happened, Rattle focused his attention on the second violins, encouraging them to attack the phrase, which they did with gusto. Moments like this ensured that despite the dominant C Major throughout the whole work, a sense of Schumann’s madness and distress came through.
This was a thrilling concert which made a compelling case for Rattle’s potential tenure of the orchestra – electrifying playing, accomplished soloists and a programme that allowed for new discoveries via both familiar and unfamiliar works. We can only hope that the rumours are true.