You either follow the latest fashion and ally yourself with the views of the prevailing musical establishment or you cut yourself free and strike out on new paths. It was ever thus. Irony has to be part of the explanation for the choice of Harmonielehre when John Adams set out to make his own symphonic statement in the mid-1980s. It was the title Schoenberg chose in 1911 for his authoritative textbook on tonal harmonic practice from Palestrina to Bruckner. However, Adams made no secret of his distaste for “the aural ugliness of so much new work being written”, but he was equally aware of the risk he was taking in making such views plain. “Rejecting Schoenberg was like siding with the Philistines” and required “an act of enormous willpower”.

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

What Adams wanted to do in his Harmonielehre was what he had already heard in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung: “The harmonies, restless and forever migrating to a new tonal center, moved between tension and resolution in an uncanny way that constantly propelled the listener forward… This was not just music about desire. It was desire itself. The emotional and sensual power it possessed was inescapable.”

One of the many strengths of this performance by the London Symphony Orchestra and their Music Director Sir Simon Rattle was how they stressed the sheer sensual beauty of the 40-minute score. This was immediately apparent in the opening movement where tonality slowly establishes itself but then shifts almost imperceptibly, creating in a succession of soft, tender passages a strikingly rich opalescence. Elsewhere the music shivers and shakes, bubbles and bustles along before erupting into towering waves of sound produced by a very large orchestra (including quadruple wind, five trumpets, two tubas and an array of keyboard instruments).

Just as Schoenberg’s work reviewed a progression of stylistic influences, so Adams acknowledges his debt to more modern masters, not just Wagner, Mahler, Sibelius and Debussy but also to the originators of noir and mystery film scores from Hollywood’s golden era, in which the lushness of Korngold, brilliantly conveyed by the LSO strings, adds further layers of opulence. It is unmistakably a work of and for the modern dispensation, in the way that it successfully marries the angst-ridden world of the second movement (“The Anfortas Wound”) with a panoramic sweep to the vistas that are opened up in the fun-charged finale, its coruscating energy reinforced by the full orchestra (the horns towards the close with bells up). Throughout, Rattle made every moment of this mesmerising work tell: his direction was absolutely authoritative and the LSO demonstrated yet again, both in individual contributions as well as in its corporate virtuosity, why it is such a force to be reckoned with.

When such a spellbinding work occupies the first half, there is potentially the danger of reduced musical rewards in the second half. Not here, though. What later became more commonly known as his Symphonie fantastique was termed by Berlioz “L’Épisode de la vie d’un artiste”. It is the inner world of the imagination with its powerful and hallucinatory sequences which needs to take centre-stage, rather than the desire to reproduce an orchestral showpiece. I have just one reservation regarding Rattle’s recreation of this sparkling phantasmagoria. Berlioz was young enough for the Reign of Terror and its never-ending procession of tumbrils which darkened the streets of Paris to have resonance. If the “Marche au supplice” doesn’t completely chill the bone-marrow, something is wrong. In Rattle’s hands this sounded more like a medieval court and its entire retinue parading through the streets to shouts of acclaim from the thronging masses. In the way that some conductors still regard the finale of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony as a genuine expression of triumph, this was given a less than menacing and oppressive tread from a conductor who in a recent interview described himself as “maniacally optimistic”.

However, Rattle hardly put a foot wrong in the other movements. The opening created a perfect sense of anticipation before the Allegro section kicked in, the hushed strings heard – as it were – from behind a gauze curtain. In “Un bal”, the gentle swish of the ball-gowns traversing the dance-floor produced little currents of air around the orchestral textures, the two harps adding their own festive glitter, the sheen and shine to the orchestral sound utterly compelling. The following “Scène aux champs” is marked Adagio, but if taken too slowly can easily fall apart. Rattle held the attention throughout, underpinned by a beautifully focused cor anglais solo right through to the merest whisper of strings at the close. There was also much to marvel at in “Songe d’une nuit du sabbat”: the growling and groaning of the double basses, the col legno of the upper strings like so many firecrackers, the idiomatic piquancy of the wind, the impressive power of the brass and not least the titanic timpani.

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