So Sir Simon Rattle begins his third season at the helm of the London Symphony Orchestra, conductor and orchestra clearly at home together, and to follow an opening weekend including Walton and Messiaen, a double outing on consecutive nights for two mammoths, Brahms Second Piano Concerto and Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony.

Emanuel Ax
© Kevin Leighton

In the wrong hands, Brahms’ passionate yet restrained, monumental yet dense concerto can feel overbearingly heavy. But not so under Emanuel Ax’s delicate touch at the keyboard, and Rattle’s sensitivity to pace and dynamic control. From the warm, opening horn entry (the horns off to the right, behind the cellos), followed immediately by Ax’s silky touch in the early cadenza passage, one could tell we were in safe hands here. Yes, there was weight where required, but Ax and Rattle ensured that the balance between piano and orchestra were always controlled, with Rattle paying attention with great precision to moments of orchestral detail. Rattle also kept things moving, never allowing proceedings to get bogged down in the density of texture in Brahms’ writing. And the warm, silky sound of Tim Hugh’s solo cello, combined with Ax’s delicacy and effortless cross rhythms in his solo rhapsody made for an exquisite slow movement. Yet Ax and Rattle finished things off with delightful capriciousness in the playful finale, Rattle evidently enjoying Ax’s rippling runs up the keyboard, and the orchestral players also enjoyed the lush, swaying Hungarian Dance tunes, finishing off a joyously affectionate rendition of this huge concerto. And touchingly, Ax then returned to the stage for a duet with his cello partner from the slow movement, Tim Hugh, with an intimate performance of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke Op.73 No. 1. Even Rattle didn’t want to miss this, sidling into one of the empty percussion seats at the side of the stage.

Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO
© Kevin Leighton

After the poor reception of his First Symphony, it was nearly ten years before he attempted a second, and the response was a colossal work, over an hour long, so much so that until relatively recently, it was performed with significant cuts. Brave programming to place two such monumental works side by side, no light relief or palate cleansers here. The phalanx of double basses raised at the back of the stage set things off with a weighty, ominous rumble, joined by the cellos, before Rachmaninov’s motto theme was passed upwards through the orchestra, building up a lush, full sound. Then Rattle made sure that the Allegro moderato following the introduction began pianissimo, yet at a steady pace. Rattle shaped the turbulent surges, and apart from one brief lapse in ensemble on a unison string melody, this was tight and full of rhythmic energy.

The athletic Scherzo had bite and a darker edge in its progression, whereas the Adagio was given a fully lush romantic treatment, with the extended clarinet solo from Chris Richards, expressive yet restrained, supported subtly by the winding string accompaniment. Again, Rattle never allowed the surges of romantic passion here to get too carried away, bringing back the dynamic again and again, so that the impact of the brief passionate climax when it finally arrived was all the more powerful. For the finale, Rachmaninov shifts into more of a celebratory mood, with a feel of curtain up on some kind of dramatic operatic proceedings. There was a joyful energy here, and the filmic big tune was suitably expansive. By now, Rattle was clearly enjoying bringing out the string section surges as he conducted from memory, and the frenzied build to the coda was exhilarating.

Rattle and the LSO, along with Ax, succeeded here in making an evening of such weighty masterpieces feel airy, uncluttered and suitably uplifting, a true pleasure to experience. And they did it all again the next day!