Sir Simon Rattle, new music director of the LSO from last autumn, presented an evening flanked with works never played before their creators' own presence. Schubert’s B minor symphony opened the concert. Whether one believes the work was left or discovered unfinished may come down to one’s taste of fancy. Yet the work is unquestionably a daring masterpiece in its awe and charm. The sensitive and controlled approach of Rattle displayed a chamber-like intimacy, a striking disparity to the extrovert image the conductor often carries. This was a particular feast for the woodwinds, as the strings in their dim sheen allowed other voices in the orchestra to emerge, such as the second theme of the first movement. If the second movement at times approached the lethargic that was extended from its idyllic serenity, the movement had an unhurried cohesion that felt more appropriate than not.

Magdalena Kožená © Oleg Rostovtsev
Magdalena Kožená
© Oleg Rostovtsev

In tending Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, Rattle and mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená replicated their previous reordering of the songs in Berlin. Rattle’s sensitivity proved to be a judicious outcome given the inward nature of these works. Their particular ordering also meant that the songs moved from the most formally simplistic and bright-hued, Liebst du um Schönheit and Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!, to the most profound, Ich atmet' einen linden Duft and Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. Kožená avoided the overtly dramatic as she was impeccably balanced with the diffused shimmers of the orchestral backdrop. If her voice occasionally faded in its lower registers, this – intentional or not – highlighted the underlying poetry of the songs. Yet versatility and excitement were within reach when required as, for example, in Um Mitternacht, which was concluded with a newfound pace.

Following the Romantic ardour of Schubert and Mahler, the second half of the concert brought the boxy Barbican under the variegated contours of the late Baroque. Three arias, taken from Agrippina and Ariodante, demonstrated Handel’s prowess for drama, melancholy, and exuberance, respectively – all sung magnificently and in spirited animation by Kožená. Rameau, who possessed an uncanny swagger for harmonic and rhythmic flair, displays in the Suite from his shelved tragédie lyrique Les Boréades a scintillating showpiece of foot-stomping dance tunes. If the introductions of a tambourine and wind machine drew grins from the audience, Rattle’s interjecting speech near the start of Borée et choeur de vents souterrains was positively humorous.

The entertainment and stylistic expansiveness notwithstanding, there lacked the orchestral control and sustained sensitivity present in the first half of the evening’s program. In two of the Handel works, Olivier Stankiewicz’s oboe and Rachel Gough’s bassoon were overshadowed by the strings and Kožená. The horns and strings struggled for sharpness in the Rameau, and Rattle’s tempi were somewhat slack in the second half of the suite. The lovely Entrée de Polymnie felt unsettled, thus was the allure of the piece excised.