Among the highlights of that transitional period between his leaving Birmingham and taking up his Berlin appointment, Simon Rattle’s concerts with the London Symphony Orchestra at the turn of this century appeared as a marker for a relationship that was necessarily left on hold. Whether either party had intended a decade to pass before it was renewed, the coming together again of orchestra and conductor here left one intrigued as to how the partnership might develop given the motivation and a more frequent acquaintance.
Although hardly a stranger to Messiaen, Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (1965, for winds and percussion) does not seem to have featured on the LSO’s schedule during recent memory, though Rattle was championing it early on in his career. Admittedly the Barbican Hall is hardly the ideal acoustic in which to perform music whose monumentality calls for a cathedral or even an out-of-doors perspective, but this performance had its measure right from the baleful emergence of the first section through mantra-like woodwind melodies and resounding crescendos (courtesy of an outsize gong impressive by any standards). Only the fourth section disappointed in Rattle’s refusal to let the gongs and tam-tams resonate sufficiently before the response of winds, but, as the final section moved unhurriedly to its imposing culmination, there was no doubting the majesty of the piece’s overall conception – much more than a transition between the experimentation of Messiaen’s works from the preceding decade and the synthesis of those still to come.
The LSO has programmed Bruckner intensively over recent years – as has Rattle, and if his Berlin recording of the Fourth Symphony met with less than unanimous acclaim, his account of the Ninth on his first London visit with the Berliners suggested a notable interpretation in the making. That Rattle approaches this music from the perspective of a seasoned Mahlerian is evident in a tendency to point-up incident at the expense of that inevitability which is surely a Brucknerian hallmark, even in his unfinished swansong.
Certainly the first movement seemed no more than the sum of its often impressive parts. The opening was ominous but not overly portentous, though both here and in the reprise Rattle rather rushed the lead-in to its climactic statement. The second and third themes were distinguished by playing of burnished refinement from the LSO’s strings, though Rattle’s nudging of the latter rhythmic profile left it a little expressively short-winded. Eloquently prepared, the development evinced less than a sense of the ultimate terror at its apex, though the somnolent transition into the reprise was spellbindingly delivered, while the coda failed to amalgamate its underlying stoicism with that gaunt inexorability of motion such as characterises this largest of Bruckner’s sonata designs like no other.
The scherzo (the harbinger of a whole new era of such movements) was a surprising disappointment in that Rattle seemed overly intent on holding back in its outer sections so the remorseless ostinato rhythms and feeling of mechanistic violence were too dogged in intent. The trio went better – its interplay of the ironic and capricious (whoever said Bruckner’s music lacked these qualities?) being deftly attended to – but such acuity felt rather out of context when the movement as a whole was lacking its essential propulsion.
Notwithstanding the symphony’s incompletion, the best was left until last. Right from the Adagio’s imploring initial phrases, Rattle saw this most intractable of movements as an evolving and continuous whole – never attempting to force its constituent sections into a formal framework that they cannot maintain, but allowing their juxtaposition to proceed without unnecessary intervention: the often-abrupt contrasts being their own justification. Interesting that the final climax, while not muted in its jagged dissonance, did not draw attention to itself, nor did the postlude linger unnecessarily – an indication, perhaps, that Rattle hears this as an inherently provisional ending. Perhaps he may yet attempt a realisation of the largely complete finale to give this work its essential unity?
For now, this was an engrossing if only intermittently persuasive account of a symphony whose musical essence seems more radical as it recedes in time. Where the LSO’s partnership with Rattle goes from here is anyone’s guess, but it would be a pity were the association not to be renewed on a more or less regular basis for there is an undeniable chemistry here. With Rattle’s work in Berlin set to continue until at least 2018, those opportunities will be limited, though hopefully more frequent than has been the case.
Concert broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 14 March at 7 p.m.