Igor Stravinsky was a chameleon composer, able to switch his style to match the decor of the decade. Yet he is chiefly heard in the concert hall via three early ballets written for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes – The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. Sir Simon Rattle, a long time Stravinsky champion, wanted to showcase some of the smaller, lesser performed pieces, which he describes as “incredible jewels” and threaded a string of them together to form what he calls a “Stravinsky Journey”. 

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the London Symphony Orchestra
© LSO | Mark Allan

It’s not new. Like most of Rattle’s innovations in London – Peter Sellars' semi-stagings of Pelléas et Mélisande, The Cunning Little Vixen and the St John Passion (the latter with the OAE), or the “Haydn Journey” – this one was road-tested first in Berlin. But Berlin Phil hand-me-downs are still classy couture and Stravinsky’s chic style fits the London Symphony Orchestra like a silk glove. For his hour-long journey, Rattle chose a selection of miniatures – only the recently rediscovered Chant funebre clocks in at over four minutes – which he likened to tapas. Check out our listing for the full tasting menu. 

Framed by spiky excerpts from Agon, Stravinsky’s final ballet, written to twelve-tone technique, Rattle’s sequence was broadly chronological. It’s easy to hear the influence of his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, in the early works. Fireworks, crisply dispatched by the LSO brass, was even written as a wedding present for Rimsky’s daughter, while the solemn Chant funebre, composed in Rimsky’s memory in 1908, contains clear Firebird pre-echoes. Anna Lapkovskaja’s rich mezzo was luxury casting in a song from Faun and Shepherdess.

Anna Lapkovskaja, Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra
© LSO | Mark Allan

Stravinsky’s remarkable ear for sonority was most striking in a couple of excerpts from the Requiem Canticles – tubular bells paired with vibraphone, harp with flute – while the purity of the LSO strings in the Apollon musagète excerpt was crystalline. 

It was fascinating to hear traces of Stravinsky’s early ballets in his later works. The three clarinets that accompanied Lapkovskaja in the quirky Berceuses du chat could have been drawn from The Rite of Spring. But the shadow that loomed greatest was that of Petrushka: strident brass calls in Madrid; the whiff of the Shrovetide Fair in Balalaika (from the Suite no. 1); a raucous chase in the Galop (Suite no. 2). A showman brings Petrushka and his fellow puppets to life, just the sort of ringmaster who would preside over the Circus Polka, a ballet for young elephants! Ringmaster Rattle and the LSO gave punchy performances, playing up Stravinsky’s wit and sass, rounding off the sequence with the jazzy stomp of the Scherzo à la russe

Evgeny Kissin
© LSO | Mark Allan

Alas, Evgeny Kissin’s Mozart before the interval lacked the same wit and vivacity. Illness had prevented the Russian pianist from being able to prepare the scheduled Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto. Mozart’s no. 23 in A major felt like a poor substitute. Often crouching low over the keyboard, his performance was unhurried, but emphatic, having the feel of over-enunciating each phrase. The Adagio was torpid – slow does not equal profound – and the finale was suave, elegant, with fabulous articulation but with zero sense of joy. His pristine encore, Mozart’s Rondo alla turca, was as immaculately tailored as his suit.