Sir Simon Rattle’s second season at the helm of the London Symphony Orchestra sees him steering a similar course to his first, reinforcing his message of intent to promote contemporary music and British music. Folk roots provides a strong thread, drawing particularly on Czech and Slavic repertoire, culminating in Peter Sellars’ semi-staging of Janáček’s paean to nature, The Cunning Little Vixen. Supporting Rattle are former and current Principal Guest Conductors Gianandrea Noseda and François-Xavier Roth, both of whom regularly draw excellent performances from the orchestra.

Sir Simon Rattle
© Doug Peters | PA Wire

This is Rattle launched the new music director’s tenure with great fanfare last September with a festival of critically acclaimed concerts ranging from Thomas Adès and Ollie Knussen to a thrilling ride to the abyss in The Damnation of Faust and on to the rare feat of performing Stravinsky’s three major Diaghilev ballets in a single, monumental evening. The 2018-19 season opens with a New Music Britain celebration which pairs contemporary composers Harrison Birtwistle and Mark-Anthony Turnage with Gustav Holst and Benjamin Britten. Britten’s Spring Symphony – a choral work where the composer draws on Britain’s cultural roots, setting the words of mostly 16th and 17th century poets, such as Edmund Spenser’s The Merry Cuckoo – is given two performances. The second one introduces the Czech strands to the Folk Roots theme with Janáček’s Sinfonietta – where each movement has a descriptive title linked to the composer’s home town, Brno – and a selection of Antonín Dvořák’s toe-tapping Slavonic Dances.

The commitment to new music runs through the season. A major new work – as yet untitled – has been jointly commissioned by the LSO, Barbican, Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation, Orchestre de Paris, Philharmonie Luxembourg, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood Music Festival. Liam Mattison, James MacMillan and Donghoon Shin all have works premiered by the LSO next season, along with the UK premières of Philip Glass’ Piano Concerto no. 3 and Steve Reich’s Music for ensemble and orchestra. Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you, drawing its text from Paul Griffiths' novella which manipulates Ophelia's words from Hamlet, is already a modern classic. Barbara Hannigan, for whom the work was composed, performs it with Rattle, where its spare textures are sensitively matched with Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony. Hannigan returns – as soloist and conductor – in March for a concert containing her juxtaposition of Berg’s Lulu Suite with music from Gershwin’s Girl Crazy.

It will be fascinating to hear Rattle conduct Sibelius with the LSO. The Barbican was packed for his cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic but, as Rattle was quick to point out at the time, the Berlin Phil plays this repertoire rarely. The LSO’s relationship with Sibelius has been much warmer, going back to Anthony Collins in the 1950s, right up to Sir Colin Davis’ cherished performances and recordings. As well as the mysterious Seventh, Rattle also programmes the Fifth, probably the most popular of the symphonies with its great ‘swan theme’ in the final movement, inspired by the composer watching 16 swans taking off in flight at once.

The Cumming Little Vixen at the Berlin Philharmonie
© Monika Rittershaus

The Czech Roots strand takes in some truly great works throughout the season. Nikolaj Znaider, appearing just as much as a conductor as a violin soloist these days with the LSO, leads Má Vlast, Smetana’s collection of six symphonic poems depicting aspects of his homeland. The theme also encompasses chamber performances from Chloë Hanslip and Danny Driver, pianist Christian Ihle Hadland, the Meccore Quartet and the LSO’s own wind ensemble playing Dvořák’s outdoorsy Serenade for Winds, some of the gentlest, most contented music ever written. Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen is no cutesy woodland tale, but an unvarnished, sometimes bitter tale of man’s relationship with nature, personified by the experiences of the Forester and his dealings with Vixen Sharp-Ears. Peter Sellars’ semi-staging has already been seen in Berlin, and Lucy Crowe and Gerald Finley reprise their central roles at the Barbican in June. Folk Roots also takes listeners on journeys east and west. Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto draws on America’s jazz roots, while Balakirev’s Islamey whisks us to the Russian Caucasus.

Gianandrea Noseda continues his survey of Shostakovich symphonies, with the First and Fourth. Noseda learnt much of his Russian repertoire working in St Petersburg appointed by Valery Gergiev as the Mariinsky’s first-ever foreign principal guest conductor. The Fourth is a powerful work, hidden away in a bottom drawer by Shostakovich who feared the reaction of the Soviet cultural powers were it to be published, especially following the pasting he took in Pravda after Stalin walked out of a performance of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The symphony wasn’t performed until decades later and its grim, uncompromising outlook can make for an intense concert experience.

François-Xavier Roth
© Marco Borggreve
François-Xavier Roth

recently took over as Principal Guest Conductor of the LSO already making a great impression with Debussy, Bartók and Mahler shortly after the announcement of his new post. Further Bartók features next season – the rarely heard Cantata profana – along with Richard Strauss and Haydn, before Roth returns to the French repertoire in which he is rightly famed. His all-Ravel programme in April concludes with the witty one-act farce L’Heure espagnole.

Other mini-themes in the season include Haitink at 90 – a celebration including Mahler’s Fourth Symphony – plus the continuation of Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s Schumann cycle and – with concert performances of Candide led by Marin Alsop – the culmination of Bernstein 100.

Click here to view listings for the full LSO season.


This article was sponosred by the London Symphony Orchestra