It took a while for the ears to readjust. Sounds which were once so familiar have, over the past 14 months, only been heard intermittently, if at all – the hum of an expectant audience, the strains of an orchestra tuning up, thunderous applause. We were so excited that we even gave the tannoy announcement an ovation. “That thing you just did with your hands,” said Sir Simon Rattle, beaming from the podium. “We’ve missed that.”

Sir Simon Rattle
© Mark Allan | LSO/Barbican

Before the pandemic, it was easy to take concert-going for granted, that communal sharing of classical music. One day after the easing of lockdown, the London Symphony Orchestra returned to its Barbican home to play for an audience for the first time since 15th March 2020, playing the same programme twice for matinee and evening audiences. The fair scattering of empty seats – not counting those cordoned off to secure social distancing – perhaps indicate caution on returning to the concert hall, or possibly that a 3:30pm starting time simply isn’t convenient for everyone. 

“Simon, can we play something joyful?” the orchestra had asked its Music Director. Rattle duly obliged, although the programme wasn’t without its moments of melancholy. But as they launched into the Rondeau from Purcell’s Abdelazer, as shaped by Benjamin Britten in his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, the aural readjustment took its biggest jolt. The music was so loud! After months of listening to concert streams at a volume respectful of the neighbours, how glorious to hear an orchestra “unfiltered”, to feel the music’s reverberation.

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

That sense of joy was infectious (admittedly a dangerous word to bandy about in the circumstances) as each instrumental group stretched their musical muscles in the sectional spotlights. The strings, in particular, sounded fantastic from the violins’ sheen and the cellos’ soulful sighs to the double basses emerging from their frantic scrabbling in the depths to deliver their Italianate arioso. As Britten then pieces the orchestra back together in a tricksy fugue, the decibels doubled as did the smiles behind our face masks. 

Gabriel Fauré provided the afternoon’s calm centre... and the tears. Admittedly, the Prélude to Pelléas et Mélisande sets me off at the best of times as I find Balanchine’s use of it to open his ballet Emeralds incredibly poignant. The LSO strings were as tender as a caress, enveloping the audience at a pianissimo as completely as Britten’s brassy fanfares. Olivier Stankiewicz’s sweet oboe lent suitably French charm to La Fileuse, which made up for the absence of the Sicilienne from Fauré’s suite.

Carmine Lauri and Sir Simon Rattle
© Mark Allan | LSO/Barbican

Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances are rarely programmed these days, other than cherry-picked for an encore at the Proms. More’s the pity, because they radiate pastoral contentment. The Op.46 set was commissioned by Simrock in 1878 as a Czech counterpoint to Brahms’ Hungarian Dances. Dvořák drew on various national dance styles such as the furiant, the dumka and the sousedská so that the mood varies between the eight numbers from the wistful to the downright exuberant. Rattle’s tendency to micro-manage – pushes, nudges, tweaks – sometimes got in the way of those more reflective moments, but when he let the LSO off the leash, often doing no more than a shoulder nudge, the playing went with a swing. Toes were tapped, cymbals crashed the final furiant with abandon, followed by an audience roar. It was good to be back.