With the announcement fresh in our ears that Sir Simon Rattle’s tenure as the London Symphony Orchestra's music director is to end in 2023, another lockdown concert without audience took on an extra dimension of separation and change in the air. However, as part of the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of Greek independence, the concert a little unexpectedly began with brief introductions from the evening’s soloist, Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos, and Rattle, before a spirited rendition of the Greek national anthem. 

Leonidas Kavakos
© London Symphony Orchestra

But from there, we plunged straight into the complex expression of grief and anguish that is Berg’s Violin Concerto. Rattle and Kavakos were in the centre of the hall, with the orchestral players appropriately distanced (and the brass up in the balcony) and arranged in the round. Kavakos, all in black, his expression hidden by his mask, was a sombre presence, yet his incisive virtuosity brought a moving intensity to Berg’s integration of twelve-tone austerity with underlying elements of tonality. Rattle frequently turned, enabling him to shape and communicate with each section of the orchestra, even if this occasionally meant his back was to his soloist. No matter, there was a clear sense of communication between soloist and orchestra, and ensemble was tight throughout, even from the balcony-raised brass. From the first movement’s mysterious opening, with Berg’s tone-row cleverly built around the open violin strings, to the dark Scherzo, Rattle elicited a sense of urgency from the strings. In the second movement, Berg moves from an incredibly virtuosic cadenza-like Allegro, through an earth-shattering, almost warlike climax to a full-on lament, drawing on Bach’s Es ist genug chorale. Kavakos’ effortless cadenza passages, with a tolling solo line combined with fiendish left hand pizzicato, was captured well by close-up camerawork and his lament, joined by the bassoons, was heartrending. Again, Rattle rotated to control and shape the dynamics within the overall mix of the build to the final tutti cry of anguish, and the conclusion of the work, with the violin’s high whole-tone rise to the end of the fingerboard was underpinned with warmth in the closing orchestral chords.

The London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle
© London Symphony Orchestra

And what a contrast with Schubert’s “Great” Symphony in C major... we were definitely transported from darkness into the light from the get-go, with the horns’ declamatory opening statement setting the tone. Rattle’s Andante (often taken too slowly) had energy, yet it didn’t feel rushed. String triplets were tight, and the dynamic contrast between the emphatic tuttis and lighter woodwind responses was marked. Rattle took the traditional (although unmarked) route of an accelerando into the Allegro here, with a real burst of energy in the tightly dotted rhythms. 

Juliana Koch
© London Symphony Orchestra

The second movement was definitely con moto, with a rhythmic kick, and jaunty strings underpinning the oboe solo. It’s worth noting here that social distancing has perhaps allowed players, away from the comfort of close sections, to deliver more soloistic performances, and here, principal oboist Juliana Koch certainly gave us this. The Scherzo had a real swagger, although Rattle’s rubato pushed the ensemble to the edge of control. Following a Trio of lilting poise, the Scherzo's return took a moment to settle again, lacking momentum a little. Rattle took the Finale at a rattling pace, and the galloping strings were again tight and full of relentless energy. Through the endless stream of Schubert’s ideas, Rattle maintained the momentum, driving through with the racing strings to blazing trumpets and a glorious finish. It was left to the silent bows of the orchestra to remind us of reality, after the brief respite given by their uplifting performance.

This performance was reviewed from the Marquee TV video stream