LSO/Simon Rattle – Stravinsky

Octet (1923)
Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920/1947)
Orpheus (1947)
Four Norwegian Moods (1942)
Suites – No.1 (1925); No.2 (1921)

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 15 December, 2020
Venue: Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke’s, London

The abundance of works for smaller forces makes Stravinsky’s output ideal for concerts that need to observe social distancing necessities, such as this concert – given just in time to avoid the latest Covid-19 restrictions – from the London Symphony Orchestra with Simon Rattle.

It was an astute move to juxtapose one of Stravinsky’s most radical pieces with one that laid the basis for his reputation as a reactionary. Not that the composer had any such intention for his Octet – its ‘Sinfonia’ exuding a bumptious inscrutability as Rattle heard it; then a ‘Tema con variazioni’ of coursing energy and musing introspection held in sure accord, before the ‘Finale’ wended its engaging way to a coda of winsome naivete. Rattle seems only recently to have taken up this piece, whereas Symphonies of Wind Instruments has been in his repertoire since the outset. Now, as then, he adheres to the revision for its more standard woodwind and brass – segueing between starkly contrasted ‘types’ of music with a purpose as endowed its mosaic succession with cumulative impetus on the way to a closing chorale of radiant poise.

Orpheus remains one of the less-often heard Stravinsky ballets, but Rattle gave a memorable account back in the 1990s while in Birmingham and continues to have the measure of a work where mainly restrained tempos and dynamics can easily result in an expressive turgidity as was never an issue here. Just occasionally beauty of sound threatened to impede the onward flow, as in ‘Dance of the Angel of Death’ or its subsequent ‘Interlude’, but the ‘Air de danse’ for Orpheus was as lucid as it was soulful, then the ‘Pas de deux’ with Eurydice had a pathos as made its climactic silence the more heart-rending. The ‘Pas d’action’ evoking the former’s demise was despatched with ruthless precision, before the ‘Apotheosis’ returned to the initial music with a resignation made more affecting in the timbral shades of solo strings and brass.

Lighter fare made up the rest of this programme. Originating in one of Stravinsky’s abortive film projects, and briefly made infamous when a claque fronted by the teenage Boulez booed its French premiere, Four Norwegian Moods references its traditional melodies with a blithe equanimity Rattle ensured never descended into blandness – whether in the trenchancy of the ‘Intrada’, wistfulness of the ‘Song’, rumbustious ‘Wedding Dance’ or evocative scope of the ‘Cortege’ whose gradual dispersal – as if retreating into the distance – was finely conveyed.

Again, a recent acquisition for Rattle – in contrast to the Suites for small orchestra which he recorded with the (then) Northern Sinfonia over four decades ago. As arranged from sets of ‘easy pieces’ for piano duet, there is a knowingness to this music which (thankfully) did not spill over into self-consciousness. If the constituents of the First Suite are the more thought-provoking as to content, those of its successor have an elan as is well-nigh irresistible when rendered with such gusto – not least the ‘Galop’ which brought about an uproarious close.

It also rounded off in fine style a programme that, logistically, was as apposite for these times as was its content in emotional terms. Stravinsky may have maintained that music expresses nothing beyond itself, but what it did express here was gratefully received by all those present.

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