Messiaen, Bruckner: London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 7.3.1
Messiaen: Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum
Bruckner: Symphony No. 9 in D minor
London audiences got a Brucey bonus this evening from Sir Simon Rattle. Having spent the last two weeks here on a residency with the Berlin Philharmonic, he stayed on for a one-off appearance with the LSO. And much as Rattle has moulded the Berlin ensemble to his own artistic aims over the last eleven years, so the Philharmonic has left its mark on him. His efforts to drag the ensemble into the 20th century (let alone the 21st) usually involve programming something fairly modern with one of the three Bs. So it was this evening with a first half of acerbic Messiaen tempered by some more digestible Bruckner after the interval.
Rattle is a big fan of Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum; I've heard him conduct it at least once before in London, and possibly even twice. I can't say I share his taste, but the logic behind programming it for this concert is reasonable enough. It is a work that shows off the skills of the LSO's famous woodwind, brass and percussion sections. It is also a good primer for Bruckner 9, sharing as they do a great deal of spiritual and theological (although not aesthetic) common ground. It was given an impressive reading this evening. Despite first appearances, the work is not devoid of sentiment and grace, and in the quieter passages, the woodwind solos in particular, Rattle sculpts the music and creates moments of real beauty. He is also conscious of the work's ritualistic dimension, and in many of the more dour movements he stood before the players, solemnly articulating the beat as if he were officiating at some divine observance.
If I've one complaint, and it is quite a prosaic one, it is that it was just too damned loud. The huge percussion section includes three tam tams, and while Messiaen no doubt encourages the maximum possible volume here, in the small space of the Barbican Hall, it's just too much.
I was hoping for a revelation with Rattle's Bruckner, as I've never been to a performance of a Bruckner symphony with a British conductor that was any good. Perhaps Rattle found himself up against similar prejudices when he first went to Berlin, and listening to this, I could well imagine him standing there all those years ago in front of the Philharmonic and realising that he would have to make his mark. I have my reservations about the interpretation he gave us this evening, but it was certainly distinctive, and there were a number of details where he was clearly making sure his presence was felt. In the first two movements, for example, he added accelerandos to the gradual crescendos in the build ups to climaxes. The result was that the climaxes where often very fast; exciting but hardly monumental. In the first movement, Rattle prioritises melodic continuity over architectural structuring. So there are no pauses between the phrases, but the phrases themselves, especially in the strings, are all elegantly shaped.
The orchestra played well, but not as well as they do for Gergiev. There were some surprising technical problems in the first few minutes. In the build up to the first climax, the wind got ahead of the strings by about half a beat, not something you'd expect from this orchestra. The brass playing was a mixed bag, and the trumpets in particular struggled to maintain the elegance of their tone at the louder dynamics. This could have been something to do with the fact that Philip Cobb, their young star player, was relegated to bumper. It was easy to share his frustration (which he did well to hide) as he sat there in silence listening to the less than impressive sounds coming from his more senior colleagues.
But as with the Messiaen, there were some surprising moments of intimacy in the Bruckner. Some of the quieter passages in the development of the first movement were brought down to a whisper, and the elegance of the string sound served Rattle's purposes well. That was also the saving grace of the Adagio, that feeling in the quieter passages that all the ritual and bombast had been left behind and the that the simple string or woodwind melodies could simply sing out without having to express the weight of their structural significance.
For all his communication with the orchestra, which was obviously intense and immediate, Rattle made sure that he remained the focus of this Bruckner. His interventions in the tempos deprived the work of some of its monumentality, but the pay-off, such as it was, was in the freshness and vitality he brought to some of the individual quieter passages.
Or perhaps I'm being too harsh. I think it is fair to say that, as a general rule, any live performance of Bruckner, like any live performance of Wagner, is destined to fall short of the ideal model you have of the work in your head – unless of course it is conducted by Bernard Haitink. Fortunately, then, the LSO has had the good sense to book Haitink for a performance of Bruckner's Fourth Symphony next month, and the Seventh in June. This evening wasn't bad, but those concerts promise Bruckner interpretation of a completely different order.