It’s hard not to listen to Sir Simon Rattle conduct the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra without feeling something akin to grief. In January, he announced he would be leaving the London Symphony Orchestra in 2023 to become the BRSO’s chief conductor, following the death of Mariss Jansons in 2019. He’ll maintain a strong link with the LSO, but will no longer be its superstar director. He cites family reasons for leaving, but the cancellation of London’s planned Centre for Music and the malign effects of Brexit on British music-making must have influenced his decision. The silence from Whitehall that greeted his announcement speaks volumes about the cultural void at the heart of our current boorish government.

Sir Simon Rattle
© BR | Astrid Ackermann

This month he has been in Munich, performing his first streamed concerts with his future orchestra since his appointment was confirmed. The first two were part of Bavarian Radio’s long-running contemporary music series, Musica Viva. This third was a standalone event, and bore all the hallmarks of Rattle’s meticulous care with programming.

He inherits an orchestra that Jansons moulded into one of the finest in the world during his 17 years in charge. It’s home to some exceptional players, none more so than among the woodwind, and it was this section that Rattle chose to showcase in his latest stream.

The opening Allegro moderato of Brahms’ Serenade no. 2 in A major set the tone for the evening, all easy grace and affable charm. Even in the rumbustious, jocular Scherzo that blitheness still shone, and carried through to the Adagio, which mirrored the effect it had on the work’s dedicatee, Clara Schumann, who wrote: “It is difficult for me to dissect what I feel; I can only imagine something beautiful, as though I were gazing at each filament of a lovely, rare flower.” With technical brilliance assured, Rattle could concentrate on perfecting balance and dynamics to craft an exceptional reading of a lovely piece we don’t hear so often (it was last performed at the BBC Proms, for instance, way back in 1979).

Sir Simon Rattle rehearsing the BRSO
© BR | Astrid Ackermann

More woodwind and brass players took their place for Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments from 1920, dedicated to the memory of Claude Debussy. Again, Rattle’s attention to detail allowed us to hear all the moving parts of this carefully engineered piece; nine minutes of concentrated wonder, the pungent harmonies of the brooding brass chorales particularly effective.

And then we were out into the sunlight, basking in the good nature of Haydn’s Symphony no. 90 in C major. Rattle has always been an advocate for these symphonies, making us look at them afresh and recognise them for the wonders they are. With playing of such quality, this was never going to be a pedestrian performance, and again, this provided a platform on which individual players could shine, and not just in the woodwind. The second movement, in double variation form, featured fine solos on the first theme from Henrik Wiese, principal flautist, and cellist Lionel Cottet, and in the the Minuet, oboist Stefan Schilli astonished with his dexterity.

Sir Simon Rattle and the BRSO in the Herkulessaal
© BR | Astrid Ackermann

Rattle charged into the closing Allegro at breakneck speed, these sleek players responding, matching immaculate articulation with calm serenity, though Haydn’s joke of inserting four bars rest before restarting the movement in a distant key was rather lost with no audience to fool into thinking the piece had finished.

Whatever, it’s no joke that London is losing its greatest musical figurehead. That's a tragedy.


This performance was reviewed from the BR Klassik video stream

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