Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra have been giving us magnificent Sibelius of late, not least the Seventh Symphony in Edinburgh and London, its single movement span gripping throughout. Here we heard the last two in his great sequence of tone poems, The Oceanides, the only one not based on Finnish mythology, and Tapiola, his last major work – the sea and the forest, elemental nature from one of music’s great nature poets, in compelling performances.

Sir Simon Rattle
© LSO | Kevin Leighton

Oceanides are the sea nymphs of classical myth, and this ten minute piece has been regarded as a one-movement Nordic La Mer, as it has its impressionistic aspects. But the musical manner is purely Sibelian, with chattering woodwind, a glinting pair of harps, and its storm brewing in a series of swelling musical waves from tranquil beginnings. All this was portrayed by the LSO players with individual and corporate excellence. Rattle’s consistent care for dynamics led us from an intensely hushed opening to a mighty climax. Tapiola is twice as long and played maybe ten times as often, such is its calibre. From its opening string phrase, which releases so much meaning as it grows, through successive episodes of sylvan magic generating brass utterances of great power, Tapio the God of the forest held us fast. Again Rattle managed the feat of playing it in one mighty arc.

On this evening before the Queen’s funeral, the second half opened with the National Anthem followed by the whole country’s one-minute silence. This programme was planned long ago, but Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony contains elegiac music worthy of the obsequies of a monarch – Sehr feierlich (“Very solemn”) is the marking for the great Adagio. Tonight’s performance was of the 2015 edition of which Rattle gave the premiere and noted “I have performed the Seventh many times, but when one takes a new edition and the players have completely new parts in front of them, it suddenly sounds quite different.” Certainly there was a freshness to the playing which perhaps reflected the most recent text.

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the London Symphony Orchestra
© LSO | Kevin Leighton

But for general audiences it comes down to the one Bruckner textual matter they know; at the climax of the Adagio, will we have the disputed cymbal clash or not? Editors may include or omit it, or leave the option to the conductor, but Bruckner lovers divide into two camps; the nay-saying Puritans and the unrepentant cymbal-bashers. We of the second group were relieved to see cymbals on the platform, and Rattle, whose direction of the first two movements was superb, approached and timed the arrival of that hard-won C major with masterly control, so the brazen clash (plus triangle) was but a brief adornment to a dazzling moment. The ensuing sublime lament with four Wagner tubas was played with a sorrowing dignity.

Stirring repeated string figures and trumpet-led fanfares set the Scherzo on its boisterous way, the Trio providing a songful interlude. The finale does not seek to match the first movement in weight, but its coda can still be a satisfying conclusion to the whole. If that was slightly impaired by the acoustic – producing the ‘Barbican blare’ – until then the layout of the orchestra, with violins divided left and right of the podium and the double basses ranged along the back of the platform, increased clarity in several passages. The abiding impression was of another Rattle Bruckner performance of power and eloquence. It was captured by the LSO’s streaming partners, now continues on tour, and will eventually appear on the LSO Live label. 

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