If a composition can be thought of – intentionally or otherwise – as a portrait of its composer, then a concert can perhaps be regarded as a portrait of its conductor. Certainly, that was the emphasis last Thursday at the Barbican, marking the return of Sir Simon Rattle to the UK, as music director of the London Symphony Orchestra. ‘This Is Rattle’, shouted the posters, the programme booklets and even the walls of the auditorium, and as proclamations go, it could hardly have been more accurate: what one took away from this evening was as much about the conductor as the music.

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

What Rattle does is extraordinary: to describe the experience (as many often have) as hearing things in a piece that one’s never heard before, is to diminish what’s actually happening. In truth, Rattle reveals what’s really there – not through exaggerated or analytical performances but through ruthless, forensic attention to absolute clarity, teasing out inner details and peripheral sounds that in lesser hands become subsumed and lost within the larger orchestral mass. One is always aware when Rattle’s conducting that an orchestra is an entity comprised of a large number of individuals, each and every one of which is vital to the cohesion and conviction of the whole. During his 19-year tenure with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, it was tempting to attribute this (in part, at least) to the vivid acoustic of the city’s Symphony Hall, but the transparency and immediacy heard in Barbican Hall last Thursday was so absolute as to be genuinely shocking.

Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO © Doug Peters | PA Wire
Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO
© Doug Peters | PA Wire

It was, in fact, a concert of two Rattles. The first busied himself with contemporary music, delivering the first performance of Helen Grime’s gestural Fanfare with such vim that the work was saved from being entirely forgettable. Oliver Knussen’s pocket-sized Symphony no. 3 fared similarly, its conveyor belt of ephemera clarified into an attractively weird mix of earthiness and exotic opulence – though nonetheless still feeling tediously longer than its quarter-hour duration. When given music of more substance to play with, the results were remarkable. In Harrison Birtwistle’s Violin Concerto, this was primarily due to the relentlessness of the music, demonstrated above all in Christian Tetzlaff’s tireless delivery of the solo line, running as a virtually unbroken stream of invention throughout. The five occasions when a second soloist comes to the front (literally) were navigated beautifully, Rattle giving the work a chamber-like dimension that at times even felt intimate. This was enhanced by the work’s decidedly mysterious qualities, culminating in a searching collaborative music, restrained and withdrawn, coloured with sinister percussive clatter. It was a mesmerising conclusion, making one rethink all that had gone before.

But the undisputed highlight of the contemporary works (and of the concert) was Thomas Adès’ Asyla, a work that Rattle had introduced to the world almost exactly twenty years earlier. Though also indicating places of sanctuary, the connotations of insanity that its title suggests have arguably never resounded with such brazen élan. Adès’ first large-scale orchestral work, Asyla’s four movements are intimidatingly imaginative, articulated via orchestrational tics, quirks and high-jinks that are downright absurdist, Rattle coming to resemble an arsonist running around a fireworks shop. But equally, the work contains some of Adès’ most beautiful music, by turns pained, strained and crazed in character. Lyricism sans irony, it filled the hall with raw emotion, while the dance music-infused third movement entirely lived up to its name, becoming the aural embodiment of ecstasy (in both senses). Performances are often dazzling, but this was well and truly blinding.

Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO © Doug Peters | PA Wire
Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO
© Doug Peters | PA Wire

The Rattle who oversaw these works was a paradigm of precision, with such sharp crisp movements that his baton came to resemble a dagger. One wondered what had become of the Rattle who, during his time with the CBSO, treated his baton more like a wand, beating time akin to striking the very surface of space-time, taking effect through the players as its ripples radiated outward. But any concerns that Rattle had moved on to mere mastery and given up magic were dispelled in his entrancing rendition of Elgar’s ‘Enigma’ Variations. Here was the wizard, doing inscrutable things with his baton, hands and entire body, making one wonder if such familiar music had ever sounded so new. Notions of reserve and propriety were cast aside: Elgar was impassioned and electric, playful and ponderous, aching with tenderness and fragility, roaring with rage and laughter.

This vivid portrait of Elgar’s friends fed into the bigger, concert-sized portrait of Rattle himself, in whose hands all music, past and present, is transfigured and galvanised, made radical. Now that he’s finally back with us again, the British public is in for the most amazing future: we’re once again going to hear music like we’ve really never heard it before. This is Rattle.

*****