It was like turning the clock back twenty years or more: a Simon Rattle concert that buzzed from the first note to the last, the programme bold and varied and every performance showed the works in their best possible light, and what’s more, everyone left the hall toe-tapping.

Sir Simon Rattle © Oliver Helbig
Sir Simon Rattle
© Oliver Helbig

The London Symphony Orchestra high jinx began with an “on pointe” performance of Bartok’s Hungarian Peasant Songs from 1933. Not one of the composer's most memorable works, it made a perky and concise impression here. The Eastern European folk-dance theme continued to the much more substantial ballet Harnasie by Karol Szymanowski, written over an extended period in the 1920s and early 1930s. And very welcome it was to hear Rattle returning to Szymanowski, whose music he did so much to resurrect at the beginning of his career. It is still a very rare thing indeed to hear a performance of this beautiful work and very hard to understand why this is the case, given how splendidly it was showcased here.

In two Tableau, the first written some years earlier, it tells a vaguely Daphnis et Chloé tale of simple folk and brigands and kidnaps eventually conquered by love. The overall effect of the work alternates between the dreamlike and the overwhelmingly earthy and dynamic. The great choral passage at the beginning of the second tableau is surely one of the most lustrous moments in all 20th-century music and the song that acts as an epilogue is exquisitely touching. It surely deserves to find its way into the main repertoire alongside Stravinsky's early ballets and Ravel's Daphnis.

Rattle completely understood how to pace and balance this massive score. The most ecstatic moments were luxuriated in without sacrificing momentum and the huge panoply of choral sound was never allowed to overshadow. The London Symphony Chorus was suitably abandoned and rhythmically alert and the telling solo tenor part was perfectly project by Edgaras Montvidas. The LSO were superlative in every department and seemed to be relishing the challenge of this work which must have been virtually unknown to them.

After the interval we moved from Eastern Europe to the Americas, still toe-tapping – although the wilfully irregular rhythms of the Ebony Concerto by Stravinsky of 1941, proves to be a hard one to dance to. Written to a commission from the band leader Woody Herman, it is a piece which somehow recognises the existence of jazz and popular music with a smattering of rhythmic sets, some melodic shapes and the use of the big band orchestral forces. However, it remains stubbornly true to Stravinsky and is none the worse for that. Rattle and the reduced forces were completely in the groove here, finding poetry in the knotted harmonies and jagged themes.

The real party piece of the evening was Nazareno by Argentine composer, Osvaldo Golijov, in an arrangement by Gonzalo Grau as a two-piano concerto for the Labèque sisters, Katia and Marielle, who presented it here with Grau himself on percussion, alongside Raphael Seguinier on Latin percussion. The five movements highlighted different Latino dance rhythms and was at times reminiscent of a manic Astor Piazzolla. Occasional clouds darken the party, but mostly there was always something positive going on.

The Labèques weren’t given a huge amount of solo music to play, mostly in support in the lively movements, however in the central slow section they had some gentle music which they projected with charm. The final build-up to the raucous close was wonderfully controlled and released by Rattle and the LSO certainly seemed to be relishing the opportunity to let their hair down.

The same could be said for the final performance, Leonard Bernstein’s Prelude Fugue and Riffs. A work that seems to encapsulate the personality of the composer – noble pretension, energy, intense physicality and ultimately uncontrollably riotous – was presented in all its glory here. With Rattle’s powerfully inspiring presence on the podium, every note had bite and the final bars were overwhelming in their intensity. A fitting end to a landmark concert from Rattle and the LSO – possibly the most dynamic of their collaborations so far.

*****