The single movement Seventh Symphony of Sibelius has always seemed comprised of four different elements that could be regarded as the movements of a Symphony and in this expressive performance the character of each was clearly displayed. Simon Rattle shaped the melodies of the opening with care and great breadth and it was clear that this would be an expansive reading; the rich tone of the LSO strengthening this impression. The careful balancing of inner parts revealed the complex detail; a satisfying example of this was the way in which the quieter contributions from timpani came through so clearly, making it apparent that these touches reflected the thematic material. The filigree delicacy of the section that could be said to equate to a Scherzo was subtly beautiful, in fact throughout, the pianissimos were superlatively gentle.
I found this committed performance a far more convincing experience than when Rattle presented the work with the Berlin Philharmonic at the same venue four years ago. Then it took the listener time to concentrate because the shadowy opening emerged without pause from the final bars of Symphony 6 and its prelude-like nature was lost. Now I realise that this is a deeply thought interpretation and the symphonic structure is clearly apparent. Typically the several unifying entries of trombone that appear from time to time were most sensitively fashioned, emerging darkly, but never too assertively from within the texture.
Hans Abrahamsen’s thirty-five-minute let me tell you was composed with Barbara Hannigan in mind and is described as a “dramatic monologue”. Paul Griffiths’s words are said to be made up entirely from those spoken by Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet without in any way representing the play itself, but were phrases such as “You have sun-blasted me” or “I could keep an eye on a little of it” really written in Elizabethan times? The text however is not the object of the exercise, being merely a vehicle to use the voice as an instrument supplementing the complex scoring. Hannigan asserted every word strongly while the timbres of the orchestra reflected the nature of each sequence which demandingly requires the upper and lower limits to be explored. I am reminded of the voice being used in Berg’s Wozzeck this way in order to create an agonised effect (this was once cruelly parodied by Joseph Horovitz at one of the Hoffnung Festivals). Abrahamsen embraces this technique however and Hannigan explored the heights and depths miraculously, avoiding any hint of strain or harshness. Only in the second of the three sections does the orchestra rise above mezzo piano, it is the voice that expounds while the orchestra echoes the soloist in appropriate colours. Sound overrides meaning – often intentionally as for example when elaborate attention is at one point given to “the”. This did not assist verbal logic but it was understandable in terms of melodic line. Less attractive as an effect was the technique employed in the final section where individual words were sung with an extraordinarily slow vibrato – in fact it could be described as a lengthy waver. This is but one adventurous idea among many, an example of Hannigan’s voice being used as a bizarre instrument. Because of this, the final stanzas sounded anything but comforting.
Carl Nielsen’s ‘Inextinguishable’ was forceful. Unlike his interpretation of Sibelius, it was clear that Sir Simon chose to propel to the triumphant conclusion, retaining tension in even the calmest of passages. Again, we have a continuous Symphony but the division between movements is clear. Rattle avoided the common tendency to relax for the second subject of the first movement, this is the germ of the magnificent theme at the end of the Finale, so, already, forward-motion was in evidence. The calmer moments were beautiful however and the second movement found the woodwind in elegant ensemble – touchingly graceful and every detail clear despite the gentleness of the manner in which the themes were presented. By contrast, crisis of the Poco adagio became overwhelmingly powerful and the whirling entry of the Finale with the devastating sudden attack from the second timpanist was hair-raising. Much has been said of the warlike nature of the two sets of drums and here they were overwhelmingly forceful but all is not anger, their eruptions have exact tonal parallels to the themes expounded. At the close, Rattle eschewed the marked broadening of tempo that is sometimes applied and the concluding bars were driven home furiously and in triumph.