|Sir Simon Rattle conducting the LSO. photo Tristram Kenton, courtesy LSO
“This is Rattle” the title of a ten-day Barbican festival inaugurating Sir Simon Rattle as new Music Director at the London Symphony Orchestra. There’s a lot more to being Music Director than conducting. Rattle is a brilliant communicator whose enthusiasm fires up those around him. He’s the best possible ambassador for the LSO, the Barbican and for British music all round. This concert could mark an historic occasion. Will Rattle revitalize the LSO and London, as he transformed the City of Birmingham and its Symphony Orchestra ? Will Rattle succeed single handedly in reversing the insular philistinism that’s plaguing this nation? In our celebrity-obsessed age, you need a celebrity to reach the masses. If the new concert hall for London is ever built – and it should be – somehow Rattle’s role should be recognized. This inaugural concert of the new LSO and Barbican season might, in time, prove an historic occasion.
And now, to the music! An all-British programme proving that British music is alive and thriving. When Sir Edward Elgar was “Britain’s Greatest Living Composer”, his music was often associated with Birmingham. Rattle’s Elgar credentials go way back Thus the Enigma Variations, its cheerful geniality matching the occasion. Once Elgar was “new music”. But good music keeps evolving. Britain’s “Greatest Living Composer” is now Sir Harrison Birtwistle, so original that his contemporaries, alive or not, don’t come close.
Birtwistle’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (2010-11) is classic Birtwistle. It operates on several simultaneous layers, moving in well defined patterns, proceeding with the deliberation of ritual magic. It also connects to Birtwistle’s operas and music theatre. The soloist, Christian Tetzlaff, for whom it was commissioned, always hold centre stage, the orchestra acting like a chorus. A rumbling introduction, suggesting portent. Almost immediately the violin spins into life – quirky, angular figures – characteristic Birtwistle zig-zags, lit by sudden explosions in the orchestra – high strings, then low winds, and an underlying pulse which emerges in bursts of ostinato. Five “dialogues” in which the violin discourses with individual instruments. Unlike Greek drama where the chorus comments on proceedings, the orchestra follows the soloist, interacting with the inventiveness in the violin part. Frequent exclamation points – a gong, bell-like marimba like a laugh of recognition, exotic sounds whose meaning may be unclear but significant, nonetheless. Wild outbursts and delicate, wayward passages. The violin sings at the top of its register, tantalizingly beyond and above the orchestra, which responds with groaning blasts. Inventive, richly rewarding and enlivened by Birtwistle’s whimsical wit. An excellent companion piece to Elgar’s Enigma Variations: the pair should be heard together more often.
Simon Rattle’s associations with Oliver Knussen and Thomas Adès are even closer. Rattle premiered Adès’s Asyla in 1995 in Birmingham and recorded it with the CBSO and later with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Indeed, he included it in his inaugural concert in Berlin in 2002. The title “Asyla” refers to asylums, places of refuge as well as incarceration. It’s pertinent, since it’s a piece of incessant variations. Inspired by techno music and the idea of repeated mechanical patterns, it channels obsession into energy. Though the famous third movement allegedly depicts swarming hordes bobbing up and down in a crowded nightclub, probably high on drugs, the same could apply to shamanistic dance, where shamans, often high on peyote, dance themselves into oblivion, thereby releasing their subconscious. Asylum as escape and refuge, yet also dangerous. Thus the grand Hollywoodesque climax, an ejaculation in many ways. Asyla can be read as a series of variations, though, unlike Birtwistle and Elgar, these variations are tinged with insanity and desperation. Adès’s finest work feeds off this primal energy. Perhaps it needs challenge to keep the sparkplugs firing. Some of his later work isn’t as good as Asyla, or The Tempest, or America: a Prophecy, but he’s still an important composer.
Pointedly, Rattle included Oliver Knussen in his pantheon. Knussen has been a regular at the Barbican, so Rattle could hardly fail to acknowledge his role in promoting new music, in London, in Birmingham and at Aldeburgh. But their relationship is closer than that : Rattle conducted Knussen when Knussen was barely out of his teens. Knussen’s Symphony no 3 (1973-79) takes its cue from Shakespeare’s Ophelia, distraught with grief, singing “mad songs” in Hamlet. For more background, please read the description on Faber, who are Knussen’s publishers. The piece has been in Rattle’s repertoire since CBSO days. It’s a pity that the only recording of this work was not by Rattle, who reveals Knussen’s Symphony in its full glory: (Knussen’s conducted it lots, too). It’s an amazing work, at turns quirky, magical, demented and inspired.
Knussen’s Third Symphony is wordless, but its sinuous figures suggest curving, swaying movement, like a dancer turning in circles. Knussen has referred to its “cinematic” nature and “the potential relationship in film between a tough and fluid narrative form and detail which can be frozen or ‘blown up’ at any point.” Without words, Knussen creates drama, in the shifting layers and tempi. Each permutation unfolds like a frenzied dance, or perhaps processional, given the size of these orchestral forces. The orchestra is huge – especially for a piece that lasts 15 minutes, but at its heart lie just three players, a sub unit of celeste, harp and guitar (alternating mandolin). Does that suggest Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, and its strange Nachtmusik? Knussen and Mahler don’t sound the least bit similar, but the comparison is fruitful, because both symphonies evoke contradictory responses. That’s part of their enigmatic power. Knussen’s symphony “dances” with grave dignity, strong tutti chords suggesting fractured intensity. Darkness and blinding bright light. Yet at the heart, quiet, simple sounds suggesting the fragile human soul within.
A wonderful performance – let’s hope Rattle and the LSO do it again, in tribute, for Knussen is very much “more” than a composer, just as Rattle is “more” than a conductor. Knussen’s a towering figure in every way, who has done more than most for music in this country. Because his energies have found so many outlets, he hasn’t written as much as he might have, but almost everything he does write is top notch, top rank.
Among the many composers Knussen has nurtured is Helen Grime. Appropriately, Rattle chose her for the the piece with which the concert began – Fanfare – from a much larger work still in progress. Another excellent choice, linking the past to the future, proof that music in Britain is alive and well and deserves to thrive.