Fate is a tricky thing - easy to understand, but difficult to accept. Nietzsche said that you should love fate, embrace it, and live your life accepting everything that happens with positivity. But the tricky bit is retaining optimism when there is loss or suffering. Nietzsche also helpfully suggested that "without music, life would be a mistake". So, as if to fit these two philosophical thoughts together, Sir Simon Rattle presented Mahler's nihilistic Symphony no. 6 in A minor ("Tragic"), wrestling with the irrepressible force of fate, and a new piece from Mark-Anthony Turnage, dealing with remembrance following a tragic and untimely death.
Rattle has been a champion of Turnage's music since their CBSO collaborations in the early 1990s. In this concert they reunited to give the world première of Remembering - In Memoriam Evan Scofield, written in memory of the son of friend and jazz guitarist John Scofield. This 30-minute piece reflects the power of memory following the sad and untimely death of Evan at the age of 26 through cancer. It captures the struggle of positivity against despair, a theme that also has direct parallels with the Mahler in the second half, although Turnage was determined to avoid a mournful tone throughout. The first movement was characterised by sharp and jabbing gestures with complex rhythms and structures, infused with occasional jazz motifs and syncopations. The slow, strained anguish of the second movement was conveyed with real feeling, before giving way to the thrusting momentum of the jaunty, but dark, third movement, complete with high-pitched winds and brass, sentimental strings and even some Ravelian waltz-like passages. This busy and unnerving movement contrasted markedly with the melancholic fourth movement, with its hauntingly plaintive viola and cello solos, long overlapping chords and overall sense of questioning.
Mahler's monumental Sixth also deals with the struggle of hope against fate, but Rattle presented his vision of the symphony not so much as an expression of nihilism but more as a passionate exploration of a more life-affirming position. This was an outstanding performance, powerful, bristling with rampant energy and, at times, serenely sublime and transcendental. Rattle's credentials as a Mahlerian shone through, and the London Symphony Orchestra was on top form, living and breathing every note and emotion with complete conviction. Bows were digging deep into the strings from the outset, wind instruments were lyrical and versatile, the brass magnificently imperious and the percussion explosive, notably the giant hammer striking two of the three "blows of fate" in the Finale. But more importantly, both conductor and orchestra managed to achieve something way beyond the notes on the page in this intense and thought-provoking performance.
Rattle's shaping and phrasing were meticulous and fluid, and even one or two exaggerated tempo fluctuations were effective in accentuating mood contrasts. The ethereal episode in the first movement, with its distant terrestrial wisps, cowbells and shimmering textures, was particularly effective, and the gorgeous sound of the LSO strings, coupled with fine wind and horn solos, created an achingly beautiful second movement. Rattle preferred to adopt Mahler's revised ordering of the middle two movements by putting the Andante before the Scherzo, which itself was suitably sharp and punchy, with the lilting central episode played in true Ländler style. Rattle exercised masterful control over the emotionally complex Finale, dark but enquiring, with the final pages breathtakingly poised and devastatingly tragic.
If anything was to whet your appetite for Rattle's full return to London later this year, you would be hard pushed to find a better example than these remarkable performances.
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