Classical music programming has changed considerably since March 2020. Social distancing dictates a smaller number of players, so we have heard more pieces from the edge of the mainstream repertoire and a healthy sprinkling of new works. As players return to performing in front of still-cautious live audiences – very much the case at this year's Edinburgh International Festival – programmers have to judge the mood carefully. Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra chose an entertaining assortment of bite-sized music mostly inspired by the theatre. The concert brought smiles all round and lifted the spirits on a summer evening.

Sir Simon Rattle
© Ryan Buchanan

Jacques Ibert’s Divertissement is a witty suite written for a production of the French farce The Italian Straw Hat, a well-played childhood LP but seldom heard live. It was a treat to be at a second performance in Scotland in as many months to relive the madcap mischief. Rattle’s string ensemble conjured excitement in their tightly masked huddle on a busy stage where piano, timpani and harp jostled for space. The frantic Introduction was over almost too soon. Rattle drew vivid detail in the Cortège as the flute floated over soft strings before a filmic melody, marching snare drum and a snatch of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March joined the musical procession. A moody Nocturne with a fine clarinet solo was followed by a very snappy Valse with trombone disruption, as only trombones can. The toe-tapping Parade bowled along before a grand hiatus on the piano from Elizabeth Burley took us into the gloriously mad Finale, with police whistle and Rattle holding it all tightly together.

Keeping the mood light, the Jazz Movement for orchestra from Bohuslav Martinů was inspired by hearing American-style music when he visited Paris around the same time that Ibert composed his zany incidental music. Scored for a dozen players in four short movements, perky cross-rhythms and a bright piano in the Prelude gave way to a Blues with soupy harmonies, the bassoon and oboe taking the solo spots. Boston was more tightly scored, a closely woven reflective tapestry. Energy returned in the Finale, a whirl that came to a sudden stop.

Sir Simon Rattle leads the LSO in Edinburgh
© Ryan Buchanan

Richard Strauss’s incidental music to Molière’s five-act musical play Le Bourgeois gentilhomme was originally prepended to his opera Ariadne auf Naxos, but the six-hour running time of play and opera was challenging and so abandoned, leaving Strauss to write a Prologue to the opera as it is now performed. The colourful nine vignettes were played here by a 50-strong LSO ensemble. Rattle appeared relaxed but achieved perfect balance and detail. A brassily magisterial Overture with tight unison and jaunty tunes set the scene for two elegant flutes emerging in the hesitant Minuet. I enjoyed the portraits as Burley’s piano kept The Fencing Master nimble on his feet, the ensemble spiky as his foil in victory. Guest leader Natalia Lomeiko’s lively violin took the Tailors on a merry dance accompanied by jaunty clarinet, with a bass trombone weighing in to provide heft. Lomeiko's solo duets with cellist Rebecca Gilliver were a special highlight of the evening: lush in the Courante, passionate and soaring in the Intermezzo. In the play, Cléonte dresses up as the son of the Sultan of Turkey to win Lucille’s hand to the disgust of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, so the players had much fun with a sprightly dancing piccolo and tambourine. The final Dinner was a delicious parade of courses delivered with a mouthwatering Straussian swirl.

Rattle and the LSO’s return to Edinburgh was keenly anticipated, the first sitting in the big EIF structure that was fully booked. Congratulations are also due to the sound team who have perfected the art of subtle amplification and made these Festival performances sound normal.