Recently, a critic in Los Angeles implied a Bruckner symphony to be an acquired taste of German-speaking cultures. Go across a continent and jump over a pond onto non-German-speaking lands, because Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra beg to differ. In eleven outings in January and February alone, Rattle mounts a programme coupling Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony with Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, touring the LSO across Europe from Budapest to Luxembourg, all which began at the Barbican Hall on Sunday evening.

Sir Simon Rattle
© Oliver Helbig

Lest we forget, Rattle is a pioneer of programming, who juxtaposes Rameau with Mahler, then with Schubert, into a sense of wholeness. The combination of Bartók and Bruckner, too, is limited in history, yet the contrasting discourses between the two works, representing the tapestries of modernism and Romanticism respectively, also find much commonality in their reverence toward the elemental and folk-melodies. Thus, a programmatic bravo for a turn away from what is becoming the cliché of a Mozart piano concerto preceding the stronghold of a Bruckner symphony. Rattle does all this with seeming ease.

Ease is also key to Rattle’s musical language, and his body language reflects this. Rarely without a smile on the podium, he has an unmistakable enthusiasm to communicate his love for the music in the making, and thereby creates a sound that is plush, confident and certain in human warmth. As such, the Bartók, in antiphonal arrangement (violins and double basses split on each side, with cellos at the back), was one of life-affirming lyricism. The orchestral tone could have been more varied had the LSO’s famous precision and rounded richness given way to rugged athleticism especially in the second or fourth movements. Still, everything felt hewn from the same cloth, and how the eerily quietude of the Adagio, aka. ‘night music’, was elegantly explored before the interjection of a sumptuous climax, proof of Rattle and the LSO’s evident spark.

Bruckner’s Sixth suffers least from revisions either made or suggested by the composer’s close associates. Consequently, in the recent edition by Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs (2016), prepared for Sunday’s performance (Rattle conducted the UK premiere of this edition in 2016 with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment), the departure from commonly played editions isn’t substantial, save for subtle meddling of orchestral textures.

It was a performance that articulated lessons concerning architecture. The soaring Adagio was conceived as the heart of the work, following a brisk, de-monumentalised first movement. Come the Adagio, the poignant transition between the second and third themes was nothing short of a miracle, from which 15 minutes of noble melancholy was exuded. Here, Rattle had ideally penetrated the psychological narrative of the sonata form, such that the recapitulating themes arose immense passion through familiarity and surprise. It was assured the LSO weren’t only about precision and tonal splendours, but also purveyors of big ideas.

Yet what goes up must come down. The celestial planes achieved in this Adagio, perhaps also due to the nature of the symphony that lacks an explicitly elevating finale coda, were difficult to succeed. Despite the concentrated playing of the Scherzo, Finale, and the jubilantly exerted ending, these two movements ultimately succumbed under the gravity of its own Adagio.