Composers may occasionally have a presentiment that the hour-glass is rapidly running out for them but few, as happened with Sir Michael Tippett, can be sure that the end of the compositional road is at hand. The Rose Lake is his self-declared last work, but since its first performance by the London Symphony Orchestra some 25 years ago there has rarely been any suggestion that it might represent a summation of his thoughts on human mortality. Instead, the composer sets out to explore a musical interplay between water, light and colour, drawing inspiration from a lake in Senegal where a minute aquatic plant containing a red pigment gives the surface its eponymous pinkish hue. In fact, as his powers waned, Tippett remained unusually true to the way he saw himself as a composer. Back in 1959 he had written: “If, in the music I write, I can create a world of sound wherein some… can find refreshment for the inner life, then I am doing my work properly.”

Sir Simon Rattle © Johann Sebastian Hanel
Sir Simon Rattle
© Johann Sebastian Hanel

What emerged during this performance by the LSO under Sir Simon Rattle was a much greater closeness to the work in the second half, but I have my doubts that Tippett ever saw himself on Mahlerian wavelengths. Yet from the beginning, these connections were being made: the repeated accentuated sighs from the solo violin, a slight touch of anguish colouring the high horns and double-basses that groaned and then fell back on themselves. The elements of chinoiserie from the vast array of percussion instruments, including 38 rototoms, as well as an exquisite flute solo, could have come straight out of Das Lied von der Erde. When Rattle highlighted the shrieking and squeaking of woodwind and trumpets set against agitated strings, the world of the Ninth Symphony loomed into view.

In the overly bright Barbican acoustic the shimmering effects the composer almost certainly intended, and in which some have found a point of reference with Delius, took second place to angular, dramatic qualities in the writing. At times the performance felt more like a compressed opera in the see-sawing between aria-like interludes and grand orchestral effects. This particular lake could easily have been a dark Romantic forest from which mythical creatures ominously emerged. Tropical Africa, however, seemed a long way away.

I first saw Rattle conduct Mahler’s Tenth Symphony at the Berlin Festival in September 1999. This is a work which has been close to his heart since his apprentice days in Bournemouth, and I was curious to discover whether his view had changed markedly since then. These days he lingers a little more, especially in the opening and closing movements, savouring those individual moments of colour and sonority the way a wine connoisseur allows the juice to coat the entire palate, and in no hurry to push the musical argument along. In the massive climax towards the end of the Adagio those expressionistic dissonances were less raw and angry, tinged this time with a sense of personal anguish (the composer’s tormented cry of “Almschi!”, his term of endearment for his wife Alma, is marked in the score).

Rattle can of course count on the LSO to give him all the sonorities the composer asks for – the veiled and valedictory violas at the start, rock-steady horns, a haunting flute solo early in the Finale and, in the same movement, a chilling, clarion-like call-to-arms from the trumpets. The playing was on a high level throughout, marrying sensitivity with virtuosity, and what was especially remarkable was how in the very last movement the conductor was able to mobilise ever-greater reserves of tonal amplitude from the strings, so that the closing pages unfolded with an aching inevitability. There could ultimately be no escape from the Grim Reaper, whose presence at the door, announced by repeated strokes of a muffled bass drum, casts an immediate shadow over the following 25 minutes. Mahler had feasted and banqueted on death from the moment he was able to use musical notation; here he was completely in his element.

And yet we do well to remember that this work, so easily called Mahler’s tenth, is only a performing version, and for all Rattle’s love of and commitment to this music, we can never be sure of the composer’s real intentions. The greatest Mahlerian interpreter of his age, Leonard Bernstein, refused to touch anything other than the opening Adagio; in 1923 Bruno Walter had berated Alma in a letter for attempting to persuade others to complete the score and declared, “I much regret that you… expose to the public a torso that lacks the corrections and finishing touches that only the composer could have provided.” Musicologists, reviewers and indeed concert-goers are unlikely to end that particular conundrum.