Britain’s totem expat Sir Simon Rattle led the London Symphony Orchestra on a journey to his adoptive country without so much as a lateral flow test to hold them up. Germany, as represented by the two Richards, Strauss and Wagner, was their musical destination in a spellbinding lockdown concert recorded three weeks ago LSO St Luke’s for which the players had nothing to declare but two substantial scores.

Sir Simon Rattle
© Oliver Helbig

A commission from the impresario Max Reinhardt led via a famously labyrinthine evolution to the creation of Ariadne auf Naxos, an opera by Strauss that shouldn’t work but does. One of the composer’s rejected ideas along the way was to incorporate his music for Molière’s comedy Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, a score whose courtly and diatonic airiness owes more to Lully, his avowed paradigm, than to the thick harmonies of Der Rosenkavalier or Elektra. Fears that Rattle might micro-manage this simple music proved groundless; indeed, the entire concert was so relaxed that the music was able to speak directly to the listener, conducted and delivered with neither fuss nor intervention by a roomful of masterly musicians.

The Strauss suite is scored for 35 instruments but so complete was the LSO’s virtuosity that it sounded like 70. The nine movements were a panoply of wit and fun, exquisitely balanced by both Rattle and the recording engineers, whether in fresh-faced pastiche (the Minuet and Courante) or in the more recognisably Straussian style of character pieces like his fun-packed miniature The Fencing Master and the more elaborate Entry and Dance of the Tailors. Yet nothing becomes Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme like the leaving of it, for The Dinner is an 11-minute tone poem in all but name. Abetted by some melting string playing, Rattle was in his element as he conjured mouth-watering dishes served by strutting waiters then amplified the comings and goings into a lip-smacking finale.

Unfair though it is to lump Stokowski’s career with that of Mickey Mouse, one couldn’t help but wonder what Disney's animators would have made of the conductor’s Symphonic Synthesis of Tristan and Isolde. If Uncle Walt had included it in Fantasia they’d have slapped an X certificate on it. The curious choice of “synthesis” rather than “suite to label this 40-minute adventure in musical erotica arises because Stokowski left the opera’s bookends (the Prelude and Liebestod) intact in the composer’s concert versions, but fattened the space between them with a fantasia on the opera’s love music.

Rattle conducted this passionate score with such tenderness and warmth that he raised expectations, not to say excitement levels, for the forthcoming run of complete Tristan performances with this orchestra at this summer's Aix Festival. Rattle demonstrated a profound understanding of the opera and its themes; dynamics were measured to perfection, tension and even jeopardy ideally conveyed. This is aching, erogenous music and it gleamed in a performance that had been cleansed of fallible operatic voices (just this once; not too often, please). The tale’s emotional power is contained in the orchestra and it’s a potent experience, albeit in a version that wallows in passion at the expense of tragedy – that aspect of the lovers’ dilemma barely makes the Stokowski cut. Little matter, for the Liebestod followed without a break but with complete inevitability and it overwhelmed. I long to hear this orchestral take on Tristan und Isolde again, ideally by these same artists. What a socking synthesis it is.

This concert was reviewed from the LSO Live stream