Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Prom 3: Rattle, Uchida and the LSO

Gabrieli (ed. Eric Crees)

Sacrae symphoniae: Canzon septimi et octavi toni a 12

Elgar

Introduction and Allegro, for string quartet and string orchestra, Op.47

Beethoven

Piano Sonata in C sharp minor, Op.27 / 2, ‘quasi una fantasia’ (‘Moonlight’) – 1st mvt only

Kurtág

… quasi una fantasia …

Gabrieli (ed. Eric Crees)

Sacrae Symphoniae: Canzon noni toni a 12, C.183

Adès

Dawn: Chacony for orchestra at any distance (world premiere)

Vaughan Williams

Symphony No 5 in D

Mitsuko Uchida (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle


Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 31 August, 2020
Venue: Royal Albert Hall

This apparently bitty and disparate programme proved much more satisfying than the BBC’s conventionally structured opening night. There were tangible thematic connections between pieces and an imaginative attempt to exploit the sonic (and, for TV viewers, colouristic) possibilities of an unavoidably empty hall. Which is not to say that everything came off.

Complemented by opulent red-dominated lighting, the two blasts of Gabrieli came at us from second tier boxes and those seats behind and to one side of the orchestra which often serve to accommodate choral overspill. The first Canzon segued into a misconceived account of Elgar’s masterpiece, the seating plan apparently authentic to the extent that section principals remained seated with the main body of string players standing where feasible. The wide open spaces of the extended, socially distanced, ground-level platform space appeared to cause problems of co-ordination though the excellence of the rest of the concert told a different story. The problem here was Sir Simon’s latterday propensity for superfluous rubato and micromanagement; the sonorities seemingly mired in suet as we waited for that final awkward pizzicato.

After that a step change: the music-making subtler and mostly swathed in blue lighting. Dame Mitsuko Uchida provided a poised mainstream account of the first movement of the ‘Moonlight’, music referenced by musicians as disparate as John Lennon and Shostakovich before they were joined in 1987-8 by György Kurtág. The three-dimensional nature of sound production is a key factor in his …quasi una fantasia…, scored exotically for piano and spatialized instrumental groups. Coincidentally the inclusion of mouth organ harkened back to Hannah Kendall’s contribution to the First Night. For all their fragmentation and surrealism Kurtág’s four brief movements have their own resonant certainty, not least the meditative final portion filtering quasi-Bach through Ligeti-ish instrumental colors. Here, beautifully graded pianism from Uchida and the variously displaced players.

After more Gabrieli, new Adès and the promise of light at the end of tunnels. This was certainly a very consonant miniature, based on a simple descending figure that generates something not so new, like Pärt’s Cantus crossed with Morricone on Mescaline. There’s a final surprise shift of tone amid “the full glare of the sunshine” but nothing to frighten the horses. This adaptable 7-minute work – it included the cimbalom and piano required by the Kurtág – might prove to be his greatest hit.

Sir Simon Rattle is much associated with the music of Adès, less so with that of Vaughan Williams although he has conducted the Tallis Fantasia with the Berlin Philharmonic as well as the LSO. The orchestra’s longer-serving players will have encountered the Fifth many times whether under Richard Hickox or André Previn whose final LSO performance came in January 2011, some forty years after their famous RCA collaboration in the Kingsway Hall. Previn tended to smooth over the contrasts in this astonishing work, refashioning it into one long radiant string-dominated paragraph. At slightly faster speeds and admitting more internal contrast, Rattle was arguably closer to the composer’s intentions. His climaxes were projected with sporadic vehemence but there was little of the subjective point scoring which marred the Elgar. It is not difficult to understand why the Symphony was programmed. When it was premiered at the Proms in 1943 Vaughan Williams was on the podium. By then the old Queen’s Hall had been destroyed by enemy bombing and the concerts had moved to their present home at the Royal Albert Hall. In this wartime context the music made a great if unexpected impact. As Sir Adrian Boult was prompted to write to the composer: “Its serene loveliness is completely satisfying in these times and shows, as only music can, what we must work for when this madness is over.”

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