Simon Rattle’s passport has seen more action of late than my Oyster Card! Since his last encounter with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in June (played to an empty hall), Rattle has been busy. As well as conducting the Czech Philharmonic in a packed Rudolfinum, he and his wife, Magdalena Kožená, gave a lovely recital in Aix-en-Provence. Quarantine rules meant he wasn’t able to return to the UK to conduct his beloved London Symphony Orchestra play their first post-lockdown concert (also part of Festival d’Aix) but he’s now back in Munich… this time with a scattered audience in attendance. 

Sir Simon Rattle © Astrid Ackermann (19th July 2020)
Sir Simon Rattle
© Astrid Ackermann (19th July 2020)

Kožená sang Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder in that Prague concert and she repeated it here, after Rattle led a breezy account of Mozart’s Figaro overture. She favours an unusual sequence of this collection, beginning with Liebst du um Schönheit, the only one not orchestrated by Mahler himself, but by Max Puttmann after the composer’s death. Kožená sang with intense emotion and animated presence. Hers is a high mezzo-soprano – veering towards Zwischenfach – and the gentle vibrato to her airy top notes added poignant vulnerability to her rendition. She varied her tone colour well, blanching her palette at times for effect, even if there’s not much heft to her chest register, which can sound hollow. The occasional floated note didn’t always come off and there was one particularly clumsy breath in the first phrase of Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, but her final “In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied” was tremendously moving. Not a flawless account, but Kožená feels this repertoire deeply, painting a solitary figure in the final song, withdrawn from the world.

Magdalena Kožená © Astrid Ackermann (19th July 2020)
Magdalena Kožená
© Astrid Ackermann (19th July 2020)

Her interpretation was aided by some quite outstanding playing from the Bavarians. The late Mariss Jansons refined the BRSO into one of the world’s great orchestras and those qualities were on display here. The strings were plush, but never cloyed, with fine solo contributions from concertmaster Tobias Steymans. The gnarly woodwinds of the nocturnal Um Mitternacht, where Mahler banishes the strings, impressed, particularly Stefan Schilli’s keening oboe d’amore.

Sir Simon Rattle © Astrid Ackermann (19th July 2020)
Sir Simon Rattle
© Astrid Ackermann (19th July 2020)

The heavy brass played from the balcony, joining the four horns – standing – on stage in the blink-and-you-miss-it Fanfare to Paul Dukas’ ballet La Péri. This raised the curtain on a Gallic second half to the programme which featured Ravel’s Ma mère l’Oye, rapturously played. You could sense Rattle revelling in the lacey textures of this fragile score, teasing out maximum detail which was well caught in the excellent sound quality of BR Klassik’s stream. He described the Philharmonie im Gasteig as "no one's favourite concert hall", yet mastered the dry acoustic – especially given the small audience numbers permitted – very well. Perrault’s fairy tales vividly came to life, whirring strings for the spinning wheel, growling contrabassoon in the story of Beauty and the Beast. Distinguished flute and clarinet solos marked the Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty and sharp col legno stabs introduced Hop-o'-My-Thumb. Magdalena Hoffmann’s harp cadenza leading into Laideronette, Empress of the Pagodas, was exquisite, the Jardin féerique finale as uplifting as one could wish to hear. 

The playing often had Rattle beaming with delight and he mouthed a silent “thank you” at the end before applause broke in. Conductors should be falling over themselves to succeed Jansons and take up the reins here.


This performance was reviewed from the video live stream.

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