There’s no such thing as a typical Sir Simon Rattle concert. With Wagner and Bartók making up the first half of the London Symphony Orchestra’s 2016/17 season closer, the odds are you wouldn’t have predicted that the second half would have been “Haydn’s greatest hits”. Rattle is a strong and loyal supporter of Haydn, and his creation of an eccentric journey through this most underrated of composers brought together extracts from his most innovative and forward-looking pieces, firmly tossing aside the myth that Papa Haydn was the “poor man’s Mozart”.

Sir Simon Rattle © Sebastian Hanel
Sir Simon Rattle
© Sebastian Hanel

The programme itself could not have had three more contrasting composers. Wagner’s groundbreaking Tristan und Isolde, with its extreme chromaticism and harmonic and emotional tensions and, of course, that chord, is usually represented in the concert hall by the Prelude and Liebestod. Rattle’s refined and finely-shaped performance of this work showed the LSO in its best light, with an extraordinary richness in the strings and a fine burnished sound created by the combined winds and brass. Rattle took great care over the subtle and gradual changes in dynamics and coaxed a patient build-up towards a sensual and ecstatic climax.

Being a late replacement for Lang Lang is one thing, but standing in to perform one of the most difficult pieces in the repertoire is another. This was the scenario that saw Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin further cementing his reputation on the world stage by performing Bartók’s notoriously fierce and technically demanding Piano Concerto no. 2 in G major in his LSO debut. Kozhukhin’s calm and unassuming demeanour belied the powerful and uncompromising nature of this work, but quickly revealed an inner intensity and conviction. The Stravinskian outer movements were jagged and relentless, with punchy winds, brass and percussion all masterfully controlled by Rattle. Kozhukhin pounded aggressively through the rhythmic labyrinths, displaying the piano’s percussive elements exactly as the composer intended. But there was deftness too, particularly in the ‘night-music’ of the second movement, with Kozhukhin threading through the fog with delicacy and mystery before the bass drum rudely heralded a quite brilliant third movement. Apart from a couple of instances of misfiring in the first two movements, both piano and orchestra were tight and together throughout, with an inspired Kozhukhin abrasive and dexterous and, above all, showing innate musicality. As much as I enjoyed him playing Rachmaninov three weeks ago, I found this performance even more compelling.

Rattle’s “imaginary orchestral journey” through Haydn featured excerpts from no less than six symphonies, two oratorios, an opera and a sacred orchestral work, all spanning a 40-year period from 1761 to 1801. His concept focused on Haydn as innovator, showing all that is original, bizarre and witty about “the greatest composer we don’t really know”. Haydn’s experimental side bore copious fruit in Rattle’s selection, showcased sympathetically and played with crystalline clarity, humour and affection by an appropriately sized LSO. Tensions and dissonances emerged out of constantly shifting harmonies like slowly moving landscapes, and there was plenty of mischief and nervous Sturm und Drang energy, with a furtive springiness from the players as they tripped through Haydn’s twists and turns with unexpected changes of pace, all lovingly crafted by Rattle.

There were moments of pure theatre too, with Haydn’s musical joke in Il distratto” – an abrupt break in proceedings to retune – nicely executed by conductor and leader (BAFTAs in the post!) and an imaginative depiction in the Farewell of players dousing their lights before departing the stage one by one until only two violins were left. This was followed by a charming and unusual simulation of what the Esterházy palace might have sounded like at midnight, with tape recordings of mechanical organs (flute clocks) playing Haydn’s music through their clockwork mechanisms, before another one of his musical jokes rounded off proceedings with Rattle fooling the audience with one of Haydn’s false endings, prompting premature applause... twice! Delightfully quirky but with a patchwork feel, Rattle’s experiment nevertheless fared rather well, leaving me feeling buoyed, replete and re-educated.