Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra opened their new season with an eclectic mix of British music that saw the charismatic conductor at his chimerical best and the orchestra at their most lustrous. A change of programme was necessary as it transpired that for various reasons, it was not possible to perform Julian Anderson new work Exciles in full. Instead, only two relatively short movements were premiered. The first, Le 3 mai, was a lush, Ravelian song for soprano and large orchestra. Lucy Crowe delivered the beautifully written vocal line with allure and precision. The more complex Tsiyon included a choir, the London Symphony Chorus, which sat aloft in the balcony on this occasion. The sophistication of the orchestral writing shone through. Overlaying this was a fiendishly intricate choral contribution, combined with a dramatic soprano line. These fascinating fragments only hinted at the ambitious scale of the work, which aims to draw in experiences relating to the pandemic. Orchestra and chorus were well rehearsed and confident in their realisation of Anderson’s rich sound world.

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the London Symphony Orchestra
© Mark Allan | LSO

Two smaller works began proceedings, with Purcell's anthem Remember not, O Lord, our offences warming up the London Symphony Chorus exquisitely. Tippett’s Praeludium for brass, bells and percussion then added a totally idiomatic note of ceremony to the proceedings. This is the 1960s Tippett, finding something new and tougher to say. The LSO brass were glamorous and deeply resonant even in the dead Barbican acoustic.

Before the interval a Judith Weir masterpiece, Natural History, pulled all the threads together with gentle power. The four songs were characterised perfectly by Lucy Crowe, her beautiful translucent voice, free of unnecessary vibrato, shining above the deliciously subtle orchestration. This is music of concern and hope, always welcome in these times.

Lucy Crowe and the LSO
© Mark Allan | LSO

Rattle has rarely ventured beyond the Tallis Fantasia when it comes to the music of Vaughan Williams. However, last year a near perfect performance of the Fifth Symphony, showed what he could achieve. To hear him completely inhabit one of the composer’s greatest works, the “Pastoral” Symphony, was another revelation. Rarely has this work's greatness been displayed with such warmth and drama, with the four slow movements smouldering and gleaming in their Impressionistic orchestral clothing. 

The Lento moderato features a natural trumpet bugle call, which was delivered offstage with aplomb, leading to a heartbreaking outburst from the orchestra that encapsulates the deep sadness and loss that haunts the whole work. The heavy tread of the Scherzo was given its full weight and toughness. Crowe again added her pure tone to the wordless melisma that bookends the finale. In this movement, the strings of the LSO came into their own, producing a restrained richness of sound that was breathtaking. Hopefully the success of this performance will encourage Rattle to venture further into these symphonies before he is lost to Munich.

Robert Jordan
© Mark Allan | LSO

The concert could have ended right there. It seemed like sacrilege for any other music to be heard, especially when it depicted a wedding where everyone gets very drunk and are woken by the bagpipes at full pelt. But somehow Peter Maxwell Davies’ An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise found a way to blow away the melancholy without sounding crass or superficial. The orchestra really let their hair down and bagpiper Robert Jordan, in full regalia, walking through the audience at the end, rounded off this most enjoyable evening with a wheezy bang.