Berliner Philharmoniker/Simon Rattle, The London Residency 2015 – Sibelius Symphony Cycle at Barbican Hall – 3: Symphonies 5, 6 & 7 … Sir Simon conducts Finlandia with Young Orchestra for London

Finlandia, Op.26
Symphony No.5 in E flat, Op.82
Symphony No.6 in D minor, Op.104
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.105

Young Orchestra for London [Finlandia]
Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 12 February, 2015
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Sir Simon Rattle with the Berliner Philharmoniker at Barbican Hall, London 2015Photograph: Mark Allen / BarbicanSimon Rattle’s Sibelius Symphony cycle with the Berliner Philharmoniker came to an end here with the final three works – a sequence that this conductor has done before in varying permutations before (rightly) settling on the chronological approach that was followed here.

The Fifth Symphony (1915/19) is one with which Rattle has been associated from his earliest days as a conductor, having recorded it with the Philharmonia Orchestra then again as part of his complete cycle in Birmingham. That latter account was broadly the conception he followed with the Berliners – with the first movement evincing notable intensification over the course of its double exposition (why have so few later symphonists not utilised this procedure?), with a simmering momentum as maintained through a brooding development so the climactic transition into the ‘scherzo’ took off with renewed impetus. Its ensuing acceleration perfectly judged, what followed gave the impression of constantly gaining velocity – though the coda, if hardly underpowered as such, unfolded with more than a hint of ‘drag’. Some oddly fluffed woodwind phrases earlier on, too.

The second movement was finely rendered as a (not always) slow intermezzo – its pervasive rhythm, as defined by pizzicato strings, helping to ensure a consistency of motion over these discreet variations on the initial woodwind phrase, with Rattle according due emphasis to the more ambivalent shades later encountered. Following attacca (as ideally the second movement should have from the first), the finale amassed a coursing energy up to the emergence of the eloquent ‘swan’ theme – suggesting Rattle has taken on board how the melody is spatialised across the texture at this point. If offering few revelations, the remainder of this movement was securely gauged through to the transformation of that theme as a magisterial apotheosis – even while the detachment of the six final chords could have been slightly less pronounced.

Sir Simon Rattle with the Berliner Philharmoniker at Barbican Hall, London 2015Photograph: Mark Allen / Barbican

Rattle’s take on the Sixth Symphony (1923) was a highlight of his earlier cycle, and though the present account suggested that his interpretation has grown more imposing, this is no bad thing in a work whose often-intense intimacy wrongly causes it to be approached as chamber music writ large. The first movement thus flowed effortlessly from its beatific ‘introduction’ (woodwinds and strings ideally integrated) through an Allegro whose keen understatement was startlingly denied toward the close. Rattle’s caressing handling of the final bars then prepared well for the Allegretto – most elusive of Sibelius’s symphonic intermezzos in its highly subtle approach to developing variation, and which was unobtrusively delineated on the way to that rustling-strings episode as takes the notion of ‘scenic painting’ to a new level of abstraction.

The third movement was unexceptionally fine in its deft juxtaposing of incisive scherzo with quizzical trio sections (and as elsewhere in this piece, the limpid harp-playing was an especial pleasure), though Rattle’s gesture of finality at the close most likely prompted the smattering of applause. Opening in eloquent protestation, the finale was firmly steered from its brief yet intensifying double exposition, through a combative development and the most disarmingly transformed of reprises, to what is less a coda than a postlude which – linking hands with the beginning of the first movement – brings the whole work full-circle in a mood of poignant acceptance. If the expressive highpoints felt just a shade over-inflected, then this was hardly to be regretted in music whose emotions are no less acute for all their understatement.

Interesting that Rattle, having not followed several among his peers in tackling this piece as a continuous totality, should then follow on directly into the Seventh Symphony (1924) – so resulting in a kind of ‘symphonic preludes and fantasia’ which presented both pieces in an arresting though wholly plausible light. Maybe it was just such a juxtaposition of seeming opposites Sibelius was intent on pursuing across the agonising and ultimately unsuccessful gestation of his mythical ‘Eighth Symphony’, but this is forever likely to remain uncertain.

As to this last of the known Symphonies, Rattle presided over an intently cumulative account that, despite an overly reticent introduction, assuredly had the measure of its single-movement trajectory. Thus the cumulative string threnody of the ensuing ‘adagio’ headed to a powerful culmination capped by the trombones’ noble theme, as is restated twice more (albeit in these latter instances with the brass being almost overwhelmed by the sheer weight of the strings) – following a ‘scherzo’ whose constantly accelerating motion was finely judged then, after the tempestuous central crux around which the entire edifice pivots, a ‘rondo’ whose interplay of elegance and incisiveness provided an admirable foil to the final peroration. Others may have found more sustained intensity, even anguish, in this climax – yet Rattle’s marginal holding-back ensured that the impact of the coda was never pre-empted: its pensiveness recalled that from the beginning, though now instilled with a regenerative force such as made the closing bars anything but passive in their plangent clinching of this Symphony’s tonal homecoming.

Before the evening concert, Rattle took the podium for a rendition of Finlandia (1899) with the Young Orchestra for London. Launched barely six months ago and ranging across all 33 of the Greater London boroughs, this 100-strong ensemble draws together players aged from 11 to 21 with the intention of affording them direct experience of working with musicians of the highest calibre. The outcome was a raw-edged while absorbing account of Sibelius’s most-famous piece, as perspicaciously directed by Rattle (who can have tackled it rarely – if at all).

A telling showcase, also, for these aspiring young performers – for whom, as Rattle remarked at the close, this occasion was just the beginning. Should he take up a major London position, he will doubtless undertake many such projects – encouraging a new generation of musicians towards a deeper understanding of classical music, which would hopefully be translated into a comparable appreciation on the part of younger listeners so that they emerge less affected by the social barriers of the past and less conditioned by the cultural dictates of the present.

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