Yes, this really happened. It was an astonishing supersized, superhuman event. For the final concerts of Sir Simon Rattle’s inaugural, eleven-day "This is Rattle" series as the London Symphony Orchestra’s newly installed Music Director, he conducted the orchestra – entirely from memory – in the three  vast and complex scores which Stravinsky wrote for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Yes, with a vast orchestra including a string complement of sixty players. All three works in the course of one very special evening.

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

I couldn’t help dreaming, time-travelling. As the concert started to unfold with The Firebird, I wondered what conductor Antal Doráti, leader Hugh Maguire and oboist Roger Lord from the LSO of the late 1950s would have made of it all. It was Doráti who raised orchestral standards with this orchestra and in this very piece to a point unheard of at the time. It was he who trained and coaxed and cajoled the LSO players of the time to play the full Firebird ballet rather than the suite. 

Yes, this was an evening to marvel at the amazing levels to which standards of orchestral playing have now risen, to admire the security in every part and at every moment, and yet it was more considerably more than that. To hear these three pieces on the same evening, in a concert of just under three hours with two intervals, was to be reminded that Rattle’s command of orchestral detail, that the subtleties that he has clearly worked hard at with the players section by section, and his study and absorption of Boulez’ theories of tempo inter-relationships – all of that  serves a purpose. This is not just abstract music. Above all, each one of these  ballet tells a story, and the real skill – as in Claudio Abbado’s classic Petrushka of the early 1980s, again with the LSO –  is to let the narrative unfold. Or, as one might be tempted say, “Yes I know about the markings in the tuba part, but give me the bear!” 

Time-travelling in the mind also took me back to the very recent Gergiev era of this orchestra. How quickly time has moved on. Rattle’s performances, in which the story always unfolded so naturally, seemed like an antidote to all of that hurrying and harrying. In Firebird there was a lush romanticism combined with luxuriant space for each of the orchestral soloists to have their say. In Petrushka there was never any jarring in the constant changes in gear, the cinematic flicking from one folksong to another. And in The Rite, denser, fuller, brassier, louder, the forward sweep of the music was overpowering.  

The juxtaposition of the three ballets also made sense as an incredibly vivid lesson in music history. To progress from the beauties of Firebird to the vividness of Petrushka and the rhythmic savagery of Rite in one evening is to be taken on a unique journey.

Only the superlatives, only the full five stars can do justice to an evening which is bound to stay imprinted on the memory. This was a very fine concert indeed. 

*****