The biggest celebrity team in UK classical music rolled into Edinburgh to make their Festival debut together with a very Rattle-ish programme: we had a rehabilitation (Bernstein), a surprise (Dvořák) and a Rattle party piece (Janáček).

Sir Simon Rattle rehearsing with the LSO © Ryan Buchanan
Sir Simon Rattle rehearsing with the LSO
© Ryan Buchanan

Let’s start with the party piece. The Sinfonietta has been a Rattle speciality since his Birmingham days, and it sounded fantastic here. The combination of his experience with the London Symphony Orchestra's crack team of musicians created something pretty special, a sound so dazzling that it felt as though the heatwave had returned for one night only. The choir of trumpets for the opening fanfares sounded as clean as a whistle but, while they might grab the attention, the most impressive thing about the performance was the way Rattle lifted the bonnet on the piece and exposing its inner workings. The crazy perpetuum mobile of the second movement sounded like a machine that had been extremely well oiled, and I loved the subdued delicacy of the third movement, as well as the lovely shimmer on the strings in the last.

That delicacy and detail was also on display in the Slavonic Dances, and who would ever have guessed that Rattle should be such a natural with this music? The string sound was bright as a button for the fast dances, but also with a lovely cantabile quality in the melancholy fourth dance, and a lovely richness to the middle in the second dance’s silky main theme. When they needed to, the winds conjured up a wonderful slithery quality full of eastern inflections, and the percussion had just the right level of crash-bang-wallop to bring out the fun.

There wasn’t much fun to be had in Bernstein’s Second Symphony, however. Everywhere I turn this year, I hear about Bernstein the proper composer and how important it is to take him more seriously. Forgive me, but I’m still to be convinced. I can’t shake the idea that there’s a great element of showing off in this symphony, with its structure that is alleged to mirror that of Auden’s poem with its variations, jazz dance and so on, though I confess that reading Bernstein’s own explanation in the programme made me more confused rather than less. The jazzy masque finds him on comfortable territory, but the variations of the first section are a bit self-consciously clever, and he doesn’t wear his serialist costume at all convincingly in the second movement.

It’s a good job it was so well played, at least, from the dusky clarinet duo that opens the piece to the strident strings and the chocolatey cellos and basses that seemed to anchor the sound to prevent it from drifting off. With his white mane and shaggy beard, Krystian Zimerman has both the bearing and the appearance of the grand old man of European pianism, so it’s both a surprise and a delight to see him identifying with this music so completely, plumbing the existential depths in the outer movements, then transforming into a cocktail bar improviser for the masque. If he didn’t manage to take me with him then that probably says more about me than him. More worryingly, does it also say a lot about the piece?

****1