Next year will see the centenary of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments, his homage to Debussy, although it is most often heard in its spikier and more acerbic 1947 revision. The 1920 version was only officially published in 2001 (the year of Harrison Birtwistle’s The Shadow of Night). Simon Rattle has always kept faith with the slightly larger structure of Stravinsky’s first version, and so it was that he opened this concert of twentieth- and twenty-first-century works, each with their distinctive soundworlds.
Lovingly sculpted by Rattle, Stravinsky’s piece here seemed softer-grained than in its revision. With a minimum of fuss the stage filled up with strings and percussion (plus two harps) and even some extra winds for The Shadow of Night composed for the Cleveland Orchestra and Christoph von Dohnányi in 2001 and which his successor Franz Welser-Möst brought to the 2004 Edinburgh International Festival). Whilst we might bemoan the lack of a new Birtwistle score, as originally slated for this concert, one cannot but wholly welcome hearing again this evocative score that references John Dowland. Birtwistle’s signature is immediately recognisable, the slow organic unveiling of a massive orchestral landscape, teeming with tiny details arising out of the deep, brooding opening (double basses split down each desk to pass back and forth a doleful opening gambit). There’s a surprising bassoon solo, followed by piccolo and typical snatched and muffled cymbal strikes that break through the textures as if to indicate the pressing of epochal time. Rattle has the ability to draw us in to such an epic score and time seemed suspended for half an hour as Birtwistle’s imagination seeped into ours. Somewhere, you feel, this music is still going on... Birtwistle was present to congratulate the LSO and Rattle as well as receive a tremendous ovation.
After the interval, John Adams’s 1985 Harmonielehre, pinching Schoenberg’s treatise on harmony’s title while standing proud in rejection of the Austrian’s serial leanings. What was fascinating in the juxtaposition of works was how basically the same orchestral forces could produce such a different sound. If Birtwistle offered night, Adams gave us glittering day, with surging solar-powered rhythms and gorgeous themes clothed in energising harmonies. That’s not to say it offers no darker contrasts. The slower, more subdued central section of the opening movement and the second movement, harking back to Wagner not only in its title ‘The Anfortas Wound’ but also specifically to Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, are cousins to Birtwistle’s crepuscular timbres. Yet most memorable – certainly in this performance of another Rattle speciality (his CBSO recording is, incredibly, quarter-of-a-century old) – was the overlapping motivic rhythms that lead inexorably to the wonderful peal of horns to bring the work to its outrageous close.