December is a time of reflection. Fittingly, memories of age-old tradition and festivity were aplenty at Barbican Hall, with Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra continuing their "Roots and Originstraverse by presenting works inspired by folk tunes and dances. Notably, of the season-long series, the programme was singled out by Rattle as being one that “really shouldn’t work.” Indeed, one may wonder how an evening that begins with the monumentalism of Brahms’ opening movement of the Violin Concerto in D major may find peace in the frenzied conclusion of Enescu’s foot-stomping Romanian Rhapsody no. 1. Fortunately, it is a programme that Rattle has previously staged, and if it features a soloist as stellar as Leonidas Kavakos, already a seasoned guest of the LSO, curiosity and promise were always to outplay doubt.

Leonidas Kavakos © Marco Borggreve
Leonidas Kavakos
© Marco Borggreve

In Brahms’ Concerto, it was the very contrast between the attitudes of Rattle and Kavakos that deemed the collaboration momentous. While Rattle’s conception was that of lyricism – edges were curved and tuttis were let to blossom in natural allure – Kavakos’ charisma bore an unadorned directness that rarely contented to dwell on the cushions of the LSO’s plush strings. Kavakos’ grainy, bright and sharp tone had a sense of concentration and clarity, with its individuality palpable, especially in the intensity of the cadenza. The Adagio, idyllic and flowing, proved an immaculate prelude to the 3rd movement Rondo. Here, Kavakos’ characteristics and technical prowess were hand in glove with the bucolic thrills of Hungarian folk tune-like themes, to which Rattle was more than happy to invigorate his band.

Like the late styles of many artists, Debussy’s mature works are predisposed to introspection. Conducting scoreless, Rattle appeared comfortable in a work that borrows a wide range of folk musical ideas from England (Gigue), France (Rondes de printemps), and Spain (Ibéria). A darkness-to-light narrative was formulated by swapping the ordering of the contemplative Rondes de printemps with Ibéria, the latter concluding with a festive morning scene. Under the newly cohered dramatic direction, Rattle did not underplay muscle and liveliness in the Gigue and Ibéria, concluding the work with a shattering tutti.

Enescu studied in Paris, and many of his works can be ascribed to a Parisian sort of flair. Yet Romanian Rhapsody no. 1 is a work replete with vivid Romanian dances. Humanity and energy are hallmarks of the work, and these words can also describe the strengths of Rattle’s art. One could argue however that things could have been more unbuttoned and audacious, especially if the LSO were permitted to roar in the last notes. I wondered in particular whether Rattle’s thick, brushed warmth, otherwise a powerful arsenal, ultimately undermined the rhythmic snappiness that gives the work its particular scintillation. On the other hand, it was a performance that oozed with polish and technically would have been difficult to be bettered.

Completing the quote mentioned earlier concerning the programme, Rattle had said that “it looks like it really shouldn’t work, but it really does”. And it did work indeed. London and Paris will each welcome a concert next week with identical programmes as this one, so there is plenty to look forward to.