A year on from his arrival at the helm of the London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle is clearly totally at home, and the orchestra likewise at ease with his authoritative yet seemingly ego-free direction. Their third concert at the Barbican in under a week was a fine example of live performance in every sense, and it was evident that, given the confidence and trust from Rattle to shine, the orchestra was having a ball. This was an evening that captured a definite sense of something special in the air, a mix of celebration, joy and emotion expressed in fine performances throughout.

Sir Simon Rattle © Mark Allan | Barbican
Sir Simon Rattle
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Janáček’s festive Sinfonietta was part of their programme for the second night running, this time as an opener. With no fewer than eleven standing fanfare trumpeters lined up across the back of the stage, Janáček’s opening movement for just the brass and timpani had an arresting impact, the Barbican Hall’s harsh acoustic adding further cutting edge to the sound. Rattle barely needed to conduct here, allowing the confident ensemble to speak for itself. Rhythms and ensemble were sharp throughout, and in the third movement, Rattle elicited some beautifully sensitive phrasing from the muted strings. No detail was missed, and the final movement had a frenzied build until screaming trumpets hailed the reprise of the opening fanfares, this time over trilling strings. Rattle extracted more and more from all concerned, leading to a majestic and joyous conclusion.

The emotional heat was then turned up a further notch, with Szymanowski's sensuously intense Violin Concerto no. 1. Drawing possible inspiration from a darkly romantic poem by Miciński, this one-movement concerto is full of exoticism and ecstatic orchestral surges, and Rattle expertly shaped the ebbs and flows of Szymanowski’s luxurious writing throughout. Janine Jansen, from the violin’s first solo entry, was in command of this tricky piece, producing a sinewy, sensuous response to the opening birdlike woodwind and shimmering strings and harps. Whereas the acoustic perhaps favoured the Janáček, occasionally here it allowed the thick orchestral textures to overpower, with some solo detail going missing, despite Jansen’s impressive focus and intensity of tone. But Rattle managed to subdue the orchestra to an impressive pianissimo to allow Jansen’s faultless harmonics to ethereally sing out, and her command of Kochański’s cadenza that followed was captivating. Rattle also controlled the trajectory of the final orchestral surges, leading to a subtle finish as the music disappears into the night.

And so to Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony. Highly popular, and therefore familiar to many in the audience, Rattle and the LSO nevertheless gave this a freshness and energetic spirit such that one was made to listen anew throughout – surely the goal for any performance of familiar repertoire. Tempi were occasionally unexpected – the first movement’s second half dance (marked Allegro moderato) took off at a lick, the stretto hardly ‘poco a poco’ – yet the LSO trusted Rattle and went with this, making for a highly exciting whirlwind of a rendition. Yes, there were one or two missed notes in the brass, but the commitment and energy here made this a performance to remember. As with the Janáček, Rattle conducted from memory, which meant that he was free to move, occasionally almost falling into the violins or cellos as he coaxed and shaped their lines. The string sound was rich and lush, with a warm and fleshy pizzicato in the second movement. The finale’s big tune when it came was truly celebratory, and the final build to those six hammer blow chords was visceral in its intensity. 

After the applause died down, Rattle took a moment to mark the retirement after 38 years of first violinist and longstanding LSO chair, Lennox Mackenzie. His tribute was genuinely heartfelt, and the warmth or response from orchestra and audience was touching. Earlier, Jansen passed her bouquet to Mackenzie, and it would not be at all fanciful to say that one sensed the ‘love in the room’ tonight. 

*****