The London Symphony Orchestra and Simon Rattle gave us an all-French programme ranging over 280 years from Rameau in 1735 to Jolas in 2015. Rameau raised the curtain and the first sound we heard was the most ‘avant-garde’ of the evening, as the dragging of real chains heralded the Air pour les esclaves africains, the first piece in the suite Les Indes galantes. Chained or not, these African slaves were soon dancing to a characteristically lively number from this opéra-ballet, in which only the Air pour l’adoration du le soleil was slow, as befits a “melody for sun-worshippers”. The final number is the most considerable, a multi-section Chaconne which brought in jubilant trumpets and drums for its brilliant passages. Is this really the same composer who Stravinsky dismissed as “not important – just a C.P.E Rimsky-Korsakov”? The LSO played with good Baroque ballabile style, with the fairly large ensemble Paris expected (four bassoons and all), and the strings had no problem omitting the vibrato.

Daniil Trifonov, Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO
© Doug Peters

An interview in the concert programme revealed that Daniil Trifonov has taken on the Ravel Concerto in G only in the last couple of years, but he already has an individual take on it. He made the solo sections in the exposition sound beguiling, almost strange until one realised he was simply balancing the hands in a way that said “listen to these amazing harmonies”. In the wonderful Adagio assai, the long seamless melody cost Ravel great labour (with Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet score open for reference). Trifonov seemed less to be playing it than composing it on the spot, as if musing “yes, I think this might be the best route to the peak of the phrase…”. The tempo was slower than in many performances, yet not at all indulgent, and emotionally cool until the woodwind entry breathed warmth into the music. I don’t know how many times Christine Pendrill has been brought to her feet at the end of this work, but her cor anglais solo always deserves it. Trifonov displayed his more familiar virtues in the dazzling articulation and breakneck tempo for the finale, which gave the already tricky bassoon scales an extra challenge. There was a wildly jazzy clarinet, and a more straight laced trombone, in a movement which, for all its excitement, would have maybe needed a second take for a recording.

Trifonov’s encore was the only occasion we left France – his own transcription of the opening ‘sleigh bell’ movement from Rachmaninov’s The Bells. As a skilful reduction for two hands of a mighty choral symphony it was in the Liszt class, and so was the performance. Jaw-dropping might seem the cliché to reach for, and indeed even the conductor, perched at the back of the strings, ended open-mouthed at what he heard.

Sir Simon Rattle, Betsy Jolas and the LSO

Franco-American composer Betsy Jolas wrote her 2015 A Little Summer Suite for the ‘tapas’ series of short commissions by Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. Four of its seven movement titles are “strolling” ones (“strolling about”, “strolling home” etc) in a nod to Mussorgsky’s “promenade” perhaps. The work plays continuously and had all the instrumental colour, metrical life and harmonic spice we might expect from a pupil of Milhaud and Messiaen, and was an illustration of just how much sheer invention can be packed into nine minutes of music. Now in her early 90s, she came to the platform to a very warm reception – including from the players (by no means guaranteed for new works).

Les Biches is very much Poulenc as the louche boulevardier of the seamier districts of 1920s Paris. (A ‘biche’ is a doe, but the word apparently carries, the concert programme delicately tried to explain, “a note of innuendo”). Now I am sure that Sir Simon and every member of the LSO has led a blameless life, but at times this sounded as if they have at least heard tales of the decadent side of the City of Light. Never more so than in the Adagietto, the phrasing of whose melody could not have been truer to the marking amoroso, but also in the frisky triplets of the harlequinade of the Final.

After our third suite it was time to end with something more substantial. This we did, but still in the spirit of the dance which filled this programme, for we moved from Paris to Vienna for Ravel’s La Valse. This has been called both an impressionist and an expressionist portrait of the waltz, moving emotionally from the former to the latter, or from the pre- to post-war periods of its inception and completion. At first the ballroom is glimpsed though old tarnished mirrors, until the dance blossoms and swirls, then later breaks up as it dances into disaster. The LSO saved their best till last, for this was superb in both sensuous atmosphere and devastating execution.