LSO – Simon Rattle conducts John Adams’s Harmonielehre & Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique

John Adams
Symphonie fantastique, Op.14

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 5 May, 2019
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Poised for an extensive tour of South America with works by Britten, Mahler and Berlioz, this LSO concert certainly brought luxury-class playing. However, on this precursor concert, the opener was a substantial work not being included on the trip, one which Simon Rattle has championed throughout his career, John Adams’s Harmonielehre.

London Symphony Orchestra for John Adams’s HarmonielehrePhotograph: Twitter @LondonSymphonyHarmonielehre may not be called a Symphony but its three movements carry the kind of emotional weight which one might expect of such a work. Harmonielehre takes its name from the massive treatise which Schoenberg published in 1911 and can be roughly translated as “treatise on harmony”. Adams explains how he rejected the Schoenbergian idea of the composer as some sort of High Priest with a quasi-sacramental role leading his followers to a promised musical land and that his rejection takes the form of parody, albeit a rather serious parody. Harmonielehre makes use of quotations, notably from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony as well as recalling Sibelius’s Fourth. Eclectic and involving throughout, its central, brooding, movement, ‘The Anfortas Wound’, packs a formidable punch with two huge climaxes. The opening movement’s pounding E-minor chords recall the energy of Nielsen’s ‘Espansiva’ Symphony and it was immediately clear that Rattle had the measure of the piece, played with polish and finesse. Prompted by a dream about Adams’s baby daughter, the Finale starts simply as a berceuse but, like Berlioz’s Witches, it rapidly evolves into something altogether more nightmarish, culminating in a tidal wave of brass and percussion.

Remarkably given that it dates from 1830, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique also evokes the Jungian world of dreams as it charts the descent from the comparative sanity of the opening movement into the total madness of the closing ‘Witches’ Sabbath’. Tonally lustrous and despatched with utter confidence, Rattle’s conducting treated the work as a Technicolor tour de force, dotting Is and double-crossing Ts, but the constant hyperactivity and control somehow left one short-changed when it came to distilling the work’s underlying menace, more a showpiece and less like a disturbing glimpse into a dystopian future. For instance that heart-stopping moment at the close of ‘Scène aux champs’ when the cor anglais (Christine Pendrill) is answered by distant thunder lacked the aching loneliness one sometimes experiences; similarly ‘March to the Scaffold’ (with repeat) although rightly taken at a moderate pace was deficient on grotesqueness. There were some particularly fine individual contributions, not least notably subtle horn solos from Diego Incertis in the opening movement (also with repeat), yet one was left hankering after the almost classical restraint and perception which Colin Davis or, more recently, Herbert Blomstedt bring to the piece. At times Rattle’s account was too much in-your-face and too loud.

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