Right back to his CBSO days in the 1980s, Sir Simon Rattle has always shown a willingness to take his programming beyond the standard overture-concerto-symphony triptych, the ‘meat-and-two-veg’ of concert-going. For his latest concert with the London Symphony Orchestra he presented what might be described – to maintain the culinary analogy – as highlights from his musical kitchen, a tasting menu of perfectly formed shorter pieces, revisiting, as the pre-publicity put it, “scores that he’s loved almost as long as he’s loved music”. Five in all, the pieces exemplified the idea that works such as these can gain more from being presented in like-minded company than when overshadowed by, say, an hour-long symphony. And there was indeed even a symphony at the programme’s heart, Sibelius’s brilliantly concise Seventh, which at about 21 minutes was the longest piece of the evening.

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the LSO
© Mark Allan | LSO

Rattle the ‘chef d’orchestre’ began, nonetheless, with the requisite overture, in this case Berlioz’s swashbuckling Le Corsaire, in which the LSO strings seemed to play as one in the perfect articulation of their surging scales, and the piece’s defining ‘big tune’ blazed away magnificently on the orchestra’s brass. From water to fire, and Hannah Kendall’s 2017 BBC Proms commission The Spark Catchers, inspired by a poem about the women who worked at the former Bryant & May match factory on the Olympic site in east London. There was an effortlessly won balance between the music’s onward movement and Kendall’s dazzling musical imagery of sparks flying, but perhaps most successful in Rattle’s interpretation was the central swirling nocturne, almost like a depiction of fire flies in the night.

Rattle is a past master at bring out Sibelius’ masterly combination of musical logic and emotional journey and this performance of the Seventh Symphony was no exception. As I wrote at the time of the composer’s 150th anniversary celebrations, the work seems to be an exercise in avoiding its home key, or at least its tonic note C, constantly evading its pull even to the final cadence. But where Rattle’s LSO predecessor Colin Davis saw this ending as like “closing the coffin lid”, Rattle himself seemed to bring a more optimistic feeling to the symphony as a whole. Its struggles seemed less ominous and evasive and more imbued with the life force itself, pushing through the musical obstacles to which Sibelius seems to subject his material to arrive at catharsis. Needless to say, the orchestra played magnificently for him, not least Peter Moore’s soaring trombone solos.

Sir Simon Rattle
© Mark Allan | LSO

After the interval came another 20-minute piece, the suite, or rather the concert excerpt, that Bartók made from his sordid balletic pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin. Here Rattle and the orchestra brought out the music’s kinship with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in its pounding rhythms and often lurid tonal palette – highlights included the suitably seedy and seductive portrayal of the ballet’s ‘hooker’ in clarinettist Sérgio Pires’ solos.

Having survived pirates, blazes, struggles and gangland thugs, our essential ‘five a day’ was completed by Ravel’s masterpiece La Valse, a work that seems to take Vienna’s hedonistic dance form to hell, and in this spine-tingling performance a work that felt for all its thrills and seductiveness a reflection of the intensely troubled times we are in again a century on from its composition.