Another classic Rattle concert produced a very strong sense of occasion at the Barbican. Sir Simon is certainly making his mark on the London concert scene with a combination of familiar repertoire, rarely heard works and his own staple fare.

Sir Simon Rattle © Oliver Helbig
Sir Simon Rattle
© Oliver Helbig

Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments straddles the composer’s Russian period and the neoclassical school that he spearheaded. In its unassuming way it remains an extremely influential piece, both in terms of its harmonic freedom, but more importantly, in its structural approach – using blocks of themes like mosaic pieces rather than developing them. Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra were ideally accurate and cool in their approach, the monumental impact of the piece fully realised.

The Harrison Birtwistle work that followed also uses blocks of thematic materials in a similar, but much more complex fashion. The Shadow of Night was the result of a commission from The Cleveland Orchestra and was first performed in 2001. Unlike his earlier Earth Dances, which uses dynamic and even aggressive material, the later work is more ruminative and lyrical. The orchestral palette is mostly delicate, sometimes lush, only rising to brief, but telling climaxes to punctuate the progress. The sound world is multi-layered throughout, but those layers often run alongside each other in a more meditative way, rather than colliding into combat as they do in many of the composer's works.

Rattle and the LSO were completely at ease here. The felicities of its orchestration were fully revealed, with the balance of the layers graded to perfection. The performance certainly demonstrated the sophistication, power and poetry of this most impressive achievement. The composer was present and gratefully accepted the ample applause, clearly delighted with what he had heard.

John Adams is, in many ways, the polar opposite, musically, to Birtwistle. One of his maxims has been to bring order to chaos through his romantic minimalist idiom, whereas Birtwistle could be said to be interested in depicting chaos itself. Moving from one composer to the other in this concert certainly highlighted this difference, although it also surprisingly produced some parallels, particularly in the use of the similar orchestral forces.

Harmonielehre (1985) is Adams' most popular large-scale orchestral work, this popularity partly the result of Rattle’s advocacy. It is an easy work to appreciate with its driving rhythms and thrilling use of the orchestral forces, but after the Birtwistle, seemed to be a little too easy on the ear for its own good. However, the Sibelius-on-speed first movement is truly a splendid demonstration of sustained excitement. The darker central movement, “The Anfortas Wound”, has some notable lyrical material, eschewing all sentimentality – dipping into the worlds of Berg's Violin Concerto and Mahler’s bleak Tenth Symphony to emphasise the melancholy mood. The finale “Meister Eckhardt and Quackie” is a straightforward race to the finish, taking the adrenalin high of the first movement to another level.

You couldn’t want for a more convincing performance. Every department fizzed and there was palpable sense of joy in the uninhibited orchestral fireworks, perhaps after the effort to deliver the trickier Birtwistle sound world. It was clear here that Rattle knows every note of the piece inside out and also knows how to make it swing gloriously.