It's party time in The City with bars and restaurants overflowing with seasonal revellers. And in the Barbican Concert Hall too were, as part of the continuing Bernstein Season, the LSO and Sir Simon Rattle presented two disparate but complementary works written in the late 1940s and early 50s, but both with their literary roots in the 30s.

Sir Simon Rattle © Doug Peters | PA Wire
Sir Simon Rattle
© Doug Peters | PA Wire

Bernstein's Symphony no. 2 "The Age of Anxiety”, commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky, draws its inspiration from W.H. Auden's somewhat rebarbative book-length poetic eclogue of inter-war alienation. Depicting its characters' search for love and fulfilment in an industrialised urban world, Auden writes:

.... the night , when drunk, one

Staggers to the bathroom, and stares in the glass

To meet one's madness (Auden "The Age of Anxiety)

The symphony itself, like the four characters who meet casually in a late night bar, seems itself to be in search of an identity. It's not a symphony in the classical sense, but a set of variations on the preceding variation with a prominent solo piano part, culminating in a mirthless Masque, overtly jazzy in timbre. Like the poem with its changes of metre and tone, the symphony recalls the brittleness of Prokofiev and a dense Brahmsian introspection while employing serial formalism. The Epilogue, with its affirmative Hollywood-like apotheosis, raises more questions than a resolution in the "Core of Belief' to which the composer strives.

Piano soloist Krystian Zimerman, who played the piece under Bernstein in this very hall in 1986, forensically dissected the tissue of identity and belief with his scalpel-edged skill and finely balanced precision. His formidable technique enabled him to muffle a persistant cough with his left hand, while maintaining legato with the other. The finesse of the orchestral playing with keening clarinets gave intimations of things to come in the more extrovert second half of the concert.

Young people seek fame and love in New York in the 'concert version' of the musical Wonderful Town. Two sisters from Ohio rent a cramped apartment in Bohemian Greenwich Village and there follows a parade of incidents in their budding careers. Shorn of Betty Comden and Adolph Green's dialogue, it made little narrative sense unless one was glued to the synopsis, but the sheer energy and the face of the performers swept all along. Played at the front of the stage, without scores, the series of choreographed numbers held attention right up to the finale, "It's love".

Alysha Umphress delivered Ruth, the more grounded sister – a would-be writer – with irrespressible verve and point in "One Hundred Ways to Lose a Man'"and dug the rhythm of "Swing". As an improbably glamorous Eileen, an actress, Danielle de Niese soared to ditsy coloratura heights in "Conversation Piece" and matched Umphress in the tongue-twisting "The Wrong Note Rag". As the object of the sisters' love Nathan Berg as Bob Baker brought mature warmth to a "A Quiet Girl". A trio of lofty young British talent shone as named characters and in the ensemble: Ashley Richards as a limber limbed Guide, Duncan Rock as the dim out-of -work footballer Wreck, anything but that vocally or physically,and David Butt Philip turning on the Irish Blarney as Lonigan.

The LSO Chorus shimmied, bopped and swung, while the orchestra became, under Sir Simon Rattle's dynamic baton, a Big Band of the era. With five saxophones, punchy brass and idiomatic woodwind, Blue Notes, Swing Notes, Rag and Dixie all were executed with gusto. The violins played and danced at their desks.

For the curtain call finale the contagious "Conga" was reprised as cast and choir snaked and kicked their legs through the aisles of the hall – picking up audience members along the way – leading to a riotous on-stage dance. An evening finally of memorable fun and high-spirits with the anxiety of the dank, chilly outside world, for a time, forgotten.