Unity in diversity: during his tenure in Birmingham Sir Simon Rattle was famed for his imaginative and unorthodox programme planning. So what was in his musical coffers for this latest concert with the London Symphony Orchestra? A new commission for soprano, chorus and orchestra; two fragments by composers who are recognisably mirror images of each other; a representative sample from the Second Viennese School; and a 19th-century symphony steeped in the Romantic tradition. Not bad as an example of a protean brief.

Sir Simon Rattle
© Mark Allan | LSO/Barbican

Julian Anderson’s tableau of pieces entitled Exiles is making its way towards completion. Three of the projected five movements (two were heard earlier in the season) give a clear indication of the large scale of the composition. In its thematic import it has a peculiar relevance to the troubled times in which we now live, the lengthy texts in three languages highlighting both external and internal exile, including the chilling phrase “but lockdown obliges”. The music too has an icy feel to it, aided by the sounds of metallic percussion, with passages of dense orchestration in which woodwind are somewhat under-utilised and the powerful brass add sledgehammer punctuation. In its chromaticism and soaring lines for the solo soprano there are echoes of Messiaen. Not all the elements worked satisfactorily here: the Barbican doesn’t lend itself to choral antiphonal effects, the two choirs of the London Symphony Chorus being positioned in the upper reaches of the auditorium.

Mahler’s discarded Blumine movement from his First Symphony has wrapped up in its short span all the archetypical features of this composer: an opening trumpet solo, the yearning phrases, whispered sighs and glissandi in the strings, a plangent oboe and glowing horns. Its moonlit mood and shimmering spirit were beautifully realised by Rattle and his players, on superb form throughout the evening. 

Siobhan Stagg
© Mark Allan | LSO/Barbican

Of his contemporary Hans Rott, Mahler said in 1900 that “he and I are like two fruits from the same tree”. The Scherzo from Rott’s Symphony no. 1 in E major provides ample evidence of the thieving magpie characteristics of Mahler himself: here are pre-echoes of all the Wunderhorn symphonies and, in the writing for lower strings towards the close, also the C sharp minor work. Rattle conducted with utter conviction, so much so that one can only hope he might be tempted to assay the entire symphony.

Conviction is also essential in the delivery of Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra. The more often I hear its compressed power, the more I am persuaded that this is an absolutely seminal piece, foreshadowing not only full-blown Expressionism but also developments much later. In the fourth and longest movement, Rattle picked out with unerring instinct all the atmospheric principles, from the tiniest daubs of dark colour in trombones and bass drum to the ferocious cataclysm which ends this funeral march. 

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the LSO
© Mark Allan | LSO/Barbican

If there’s one thing that Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony doesn’t need, it’s a helping hand. It’s obvious that Rattle, who conducted from memory, loves this work. Yet interventionism, especially in the form of the many agogic hesitations and over-fussiness in the way that phrases were moulded here, works against the continuum. Even when music is slow it still has to flow. There were certainly thrilling moments, particularly when the LSO brass were in full cry and the strings had a collective earthy weight. As so often, however, repeated brass-laden climaxes prove the law of diminishing returns. Little was floated; too much was over-emphasised.

Did all these pieces fit comfortably into one single programme? Not really, but once in a while music can afford to be challenging and less than cosy. Boring predictability is ultimately self-defeating.