These three works cross Stravinsky’s countries of residence. The Symphonies of Wind Instruments was begun in Switzerland and completed in Paris, the first two movements of the Symphony in C were written in France and Switzerland, the last two in the US. The Symphony in Three Movements was written entirely in America, and is the most performed of all those written there. It has form at the Proms too, this being its sixteenth outing. And “form” is the (in)operative word in each. In the first work “Symphonies” is meant in the ancient sense of “sounding together”, while the analysts have claimed the Symphony in C is neither a symphony nor in C, and Stravinsky himself wondered whether “Three Symphonic Movements” would be a better title than Symphony in Three Movements. So, were we to celebrate a great artist fifty years after his death with three misbegotten attempts at a form he never understood?

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the London Symphony Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Well, no. All doubts were swept aside by Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra, in a magnificent demonstration of how a mosaic of blocks of sound, vivid instrumental colour, and above all dynamic rhythmic patterns, can be forged into satisfying large scale pieces, each with its own internal logic. And if Russia seemed to be the country missing from the programme, Rattle did rightly prefer the more Russian sounding original version of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments from 1920 over its 1947 successor. And what could be more Russian Orthodox than Stravinsky’s description of his work as “an austere ritual unfolded in terms of short litanies”, the LSO’s massed brass and winds glowing like an old ikon, echoing beneath the hall’s distant dome, bringing Byzantium to Kensington. Written in memoriam Debussy, when played with such dedication there is no nobler tribute from one great composer to another.

The London Symphony Orchestra plays Stravinsky
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The Symphony in C produced the only moment that had me checking the score at home. Its last page has a trademark slow chorale for winds and horns, replaced in the last three bars by muted strings. It is as if one is embracing a statue which, at the warmth of the string entry, becomes flesh. Little was made of this effect. The strings are marked p, but the preceding winds are marked ppp and the strings are divided for richness and marked pesante subito (suddenly heavy). More emphasis was perhaps needed here. A mere detail of course, but I note it only so as not to seem hopelessly uncritical when saying the previous ninety pages of the score were given a well-nigh faultless performance. “The older I get, the less I can endure music with does not sing or dance,” Stravinsky once said. He would have loved this.

The Symphony in Three Movements is unusual inasmuch as Stravinsky referred to external events affecting a composition. Written in 1942-45, wartime newsreel footage lies behind some parts, while an aborted movie score ended up in the slow movement. But the composer later added “in spite of what I have said the symphony is not programmatic”. Nonetheless Rattle found plenty of drama and colour in this performance, not just the prominent piano part and the harp in the Andante, but the brazen headlong coda with its Hollywood ending. The LSO’s tremendous, yet disciplined, energy, and that delightfully vulgar added sixth final chord, provoked the familiar Prommers’ cheer, rarely more deserved.

*****