Sometimes less is not more. Sometimes more is more. And visibly and volubly so when, as in this evening with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, large numbers of additional players are involved. Here students from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama were taking part in the Orchestral Artistry Masters programme. Together with other bands which give young musicians that all-important professional experience, the LSO recently instituted a scheme in which senior students sit side-by-side with orchestral personnel and benefit from collective music-making. Choosing the right works with which to showcase such forces is therefore an important consideration.

Sir Simon Rattle © Oliver Helbig
Sir Simon Rattle
© Oliver Helbig

When Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis was premiered as part of the Three Choirs Festival in 1910, the Gloucester Cathedral organist called it “a queer, mad work by an odd fellow from Chelsea”. This reference to his provenance is significant: Vaughan Williams, who was descended from the great Wedgwood and Darwin families, was – unlike Percy Grainger, for instance – as British as could be. Like Grainger, however, he identified folk-song as the link between music and daily life. Much has been made of the celestial implications of this tribute to the greatest of Tudor composers, yet Vaughan Williams himself remained stubbornly agnostic. At its best, the Tallis Fantasia, drawing as it does on the Elizabethan fancy in which several related themes are developed in separate sections, offers peace and serenity in a spirit of rapt meditation.

Vaughan Williams eschewed flashier string effects for purposes of contrast and relied instead on a spatial and musical separation: a smaller group of nine players (Orchestra II) set against a solo quartet and larger body (Orchestra I). In this performance Orchestra II were placed on risers at the back of the platform. When faced with the waves of sound coming from the serried ranks in front of them, underpinned by twelve double basses, there was something of a mismatch. Nor was the solo quartet ideally balanced, the solo viola projecting more strongly than the other instruments. And for all the obvious commitment in the playing, there was a touch of glare in the upper strings.

The Lincolnshire Posy fared better. Commissioned for the American Bandmasters Convention in 1937, this set of “musical wildflowers” makes use of the folk tunes and lives of their singers encountered by Grainger during a trip to the Lincolnshire countryside. It is not often that you can hear a complete family of saxophones (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, bass) in performance, but they made a splendidly mellifluous contribution to the richly textured sounds coming from wind and brass in this six-movement-work. Even though there were fewer than the 86 players at the premiere, crispness of ensemble was not always guaranteed, Rattle choosing instead to mould the lyrical lines expressively. This was particularly evident in the third-movement Poaching Song, which would have benefited from a slightly cheekier and saucier approach. However, the last three movements were strongly characterised: the swirls of effervescence in The Brisk Young Sailor, conveyed with a Jack-the-Lad insouciance; the martial overtones from the heavy brass, reinforced by eight basses and timpani, in the war song Lord Melbourne; and the hop, skip and jump frolics of the concluding dance song The Lost Lady Found.

If the nature of the countryside and a celebration of folk-inspired heritage were thematic links in this concert, the performance of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony ideally underlined this salute to a rustic lifestyle with ceremonial flourishes, colourful garlands and, above all, much love. The programmatic elements in this work were all intended by the composer. Indeed, at one stage Bruckner called the final movement Volksfest, inspired by a local folk festival, and in the towering unison chords from a very full platform of players there was a palpable sense of physical enjoyment.

Yet it was Rattle’s deepened understanding of this composer that most impressed me. His choice of tempi throughout ensured both a sense of forward momentum where appropriate as well as a relaxed and unhurried approach to the unfolding of Bruckner’s long melodic lines. A particular case in point was the slow movement: this is not marked Adagio (unlike many of the other symphonies) but Andante, quasi allegretto. There was no bogus profundity here in a mistaken search for other-worldliness. Instead, Rattle offered some of the gentlest, tenderest phrasing I have ever heard in this movement, with dynamics often pared down to a whisper, like watching in a slow-frame sequence groups of young maidens floating through summer meadows and picking posies of wildflowers. This cushioned feeling of repose was then magically echoed in the Trio section of the hunting Scherzo, Rattle again paying careful attention to the tempo marking. Even if there were occasional moments of imprecision and slack ensemble, and the horns didn’t have the best of nights, this was a Romantic to savour in full.