Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra combined the first and second Viennese Schools for this programme, preceding Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony with three works of Berg, opening with his Seven Early Songs (1905-8). For ‘prentice pieces these are often exquisite, combining a late Romantic sensibility for the voice with modernist orchestrations from twenty years later. Dorothea Röschmann’s soprano was ideal for the most part, combining sensuality of line and a silvery tone. In The Nightingale she soared ecstatically aloft for the “sweet melody… that bears a thousand roses”. The big leap at the end of the last song is a big ask, but Röschmann summoned the power needed for that climactic moment.

Dorothea Röschmann, Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra © Mark Allan | Barbican
Dorothea Röschmann, Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Berg’s Passacaglia is an unfinished piece from 1913, orchestrated from the manuscript’s indications and completed by Swiss conductor Christian von Borries and premiered only in 1999. It hardly makes the impression of Webern’s Passacagalia Op.1, and certainly not of the best passacaglia Berg never wrote, the expressionist one which the Berg-obsessed Britten composed for Peter Grimes. But it was still worth hearing as a prelude to Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces (which followed without a break). After early songs and an abandoned fragment, Op.6 is the real thing, and a work of which Rattle was a master back in his Birmingham days. He drew plenty of detail from Berg's endlessly inventive score, and timed the towering climax of the first piece superbly. But for all his attention to the coruscating orchestral fabric Rattle kept a sense of pulse and direction that led the ear through those constantly shifting perspectives.

From the decadent Vienna of 1915 we went back to the beleaguered city of 1812 for Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. This tremendous orchestral tour de force is conjured out of Haydn’s orchestra, with normal pairs of winds and brass, and none of the extra instruments found in symphonies 3, 5 and 6. Or at least that is what the score says. But the LSO, the strings slimmed down (six basses), sported a couple of contrabassoons, presumably to double those basses. It was not that easy to judge their contribution as they have no independent parts, but the bass line was rock solid and everyone around them played splendidly.

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

After a spacious account of the introduction, the Vivace of the first movement was compelling in its rhythmic drive. Never too hard-driven, it remained buoyant right up to some exultant braying from the horns in the coda. Wagner called the Seventh “the apotheosis of the dance” but the second movement is more the apotheosis of the dactyl, so insistent is the composer’s exploitation of its initial long-and-two-shorts figure. Marked Allegretto, Rattle sees this as the nearest thing the work has to a slow movement, and was very lyrical in his moulding of it. That smoothed out those dactyls, but the effect was very expressive. Sir Simon has never been one for a continuous beat when conducting, which you would think makes it difficult to keep the rhythm aloft throughout the later movements, but that was not a problem here. Set the LSO going and nudge, correct and encourage when needed, never let any hint of routine creep in, and then the music speaks directly – essential in this most direct of composers. That directness prevailed right through to that rare fff marking near the end of the finale, and the audience duly cheered the result. If you felt slightly oppressed by “Beethoven 250” and the prospect of wall-to-wall LvB throughout 2020, here was a joyous reminder of just what we are celebrating.

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