Five years ago, when his association with the London Symphony Orchestra was just taking off, Simon Rattle gave an instructive pairing of Messiaen’s Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum and Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony (sans Finale) in a programme similar to that of this concert.
Couleurs de la cité céleste (1963) was Messiaen’s preceding work, and if its juxtaposing of piano, wind and percussion allies it more closely with those incisive pieces before it rather than the monumental statements that followed, the sectional inscriptions from The Book of Revelation confirm this as music no less apocalyptic in its intent. Utilising the fullest extent of the Barbican platform, Rattle secured impressive unanimity of ensemble in music whose outwardly unpredictable events belie a systematic formal trajectory – the minx-like repeated chords toward the centre surrounded by more capricious and rhythmically flexible material, itself framed by hieratic chorale-like sequences at the opening and close. Not a work with which the LSO can have been familiar, but one despatched with alacrity and relish.
Rattle has only gradually absorbed Bruckner into his repertoire. The present account of the Eighth Symphony followed recent performances in Luxembourg and Paris, and Rattle (here conducting without a score) had clearly taken on board its formidable interpretative demands. Yet there was a distinct ‘by numbers’ feel about parts of the opening movement – notably a slightly passive culmination of the development and less than terrifying final climax prior to the oddly inert coda – as predicated fluency over insight. The Scherzo was not dissimilar in that outer sections, taken at a not unduly hectic tempo, lacked the final degree of cumulative energy (Rattle rightly avoided ending each of these with too pointed a ritardando), with the Trio – deftly rendered – too much a self-contained episode to integrate fully into its context.
Not for the first time in this work, the performance reached another level in the Adagio. No doubt drawing on his long experience in Mahler, Rattle shaped this steadily evolving edifice with an unwavering assurance as went hand in hand with impressive clarity of ensemble; the layout of which – double basses in a row at the rear of the platform, brass arrayed left to right with trumpets, trombones then horns and Wagner tubas, and violins antiphonal – paid dividends in opening-out the distinct soundworld, with the three harps adding a suitably beatific aura. Nor was Rattle at all fazed by the formal convolutions of the Finale, adopting a steady though never stolid tempo for the surging initial theme which amply encompassed the ruminative and anxious ideas that follow. The development unfolded as an audibly unbroken span – here, even more than in the Adagio, the Robert Haas ‘insertions’ from the 1887 score enhancing the tonal cohesion of the movement overall. Un-portentously prepared, the coda may have lacked an element of grandeur, but its clarity of thematic interplay made for an impressive apotheosis.
While Rattle opted for the now-maligned Haas edition and justified it in all essentials, a feeling persisted he might have even greater affinity with the quixotic 1887 original than the tragedy to triumph of the 1890 revision. Even so, this was an impressive interpretation in the making.