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London Symphony Orchestra/Rattle, Barbican, London — review

This was Simon Rattle’s first concert with the London Symphony Orchestra since confirmation of his appointment as music director back in March. Not that things have been quiet behind the scenes. A flurry of other announcements has followed, including his appointment as artist-in-association at the Barbican Centre and plans for commissions of new works.

In outline, the concert itself was a standard affair. The two composers — Brahms and Dvořák, so closely related in musical terms — are a familiar pairing, but the soloist, Krystian Zimerman, had not played with the LSO at the Barbican since 1986. Rattle has made a new set of friends while he has been in Berlin.

That was not all. For Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 Rattle brought with him orchestral parts used by Furtwängler, the Berlin Philharmonic’s legendary principal conductor of the 1920s. Marked up by him, with later markings by his successors Abbado and Rattle, these parts helped shape a monumental performance that drew on hallowed Berlin tradition. The concerto is longer than any of Brahms’s symphonies, the orchestral part just as imposing. And that was how it felt here, as Rattle reached out to explore extremes of pace, texture and colour. The result felt truly massive, embracing a universe of possibilities.

Many pianists would pale against this backdrop, but Zimerman held his own. His playing had great power, but also an aristocratic poise to the balancing of chords, a clarity in inner parts. Zimerman does not attack the concerto with fury like Barenboim, or sink into its depths like Arrau. Here was rather a shaft of light against the vast panorama of Rattle’s dark-hued sky.

The second half featured two Dvořák tone poems — The Wild Dove and The Golden Spinning Wheel — separated by one of his Slavonic Dances. Rattle becomes a vivid storyteller in these folk tale pieces, gruesome as they can be. For an encore, he promised no more mutilated bodies and lifted the spirits with Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance in C, Op. 72. The LSO’s playing was vividly coloured, its lower strings astonishingly rich — in fact just like the Berlin Philharmonic when they came to London earlier in the year. Is the LSO under Rattle going to take on a German accent?


July 5, 2015 10:16 pm

Richard Fairman


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