LSO/Rattle review – celebrating Bernstein's irrepressible versatility

Barbican, London
The Leonard Bernstein centenary tribute ranged from his profoundly serious symphony The Age of Anxiety to the frothy, uncomplicated Wonderful Town

Simon Rattle’s contribution to the London Symphony Orchestra’s centenary tribute to its former president, Leonard Bernstein, celebrated the irrepressible versatility of Bernstein the composer. On the one side there was the concert version of Wonderful Town, his frothy 1953 musical comedy set in New York, while on the other there was the second of his three profoundly serious symphonies, The Age of Anxiety, completed four years earlier.

Last month, Marin Alsop launched the LSO’s celebration with Bernstein’s other two symphonies. Like those works, The Age of Anxiety doesn’t fit into any conventional symphonic template. Inspired by WH Auden’s epic poem of the same name, it’s also a piano concerto of sorts. The rich mix of early 20th-century musical styles – Stravinsky, Nielsen, Hindemith and Copland, throwing in a 12-note row and a jazzy episode too – doesn’t always hang together, even, as here, with the great Krystian Zimerman as the soloist. He, though, was clearly ailing, alternating typically dazzling playing with bouts of coughing; there was even a false entry at the beginning of the second part.

But Wonderful Town was an unqualified, uncomplicated delight. This was the hour-long concert version, which sacrifices narrative continuity to preserve the best numbers in Bernstein’s score. Though no stage director was credited, there was a theatrical framework of sorts, including a conga that embroiled most of the London Symphony Chorus in the fun. Rattle’s performance had just the right brassy pizzazz, with a cast led by the irrepressible Alysha Umphress as Ruth and Danielle de Niese as Eileen, the two sisters who arrive from Ohio determined to launch their careers; Nathan Gunn, David Butt Philip and Duncan Rock took smaller roles, all slick and nonchalantly brilliant.

The other concert in Rattle’s pre-Christmas brace took up the theme of late works, which threads through his first London season. Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde was prefaced by Strauss’s Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings. Both are valedictory works of enormous emotional potential, which these performances never came close to realising. In the Mahler, Rattle had opted for a baritone as the second soloist alongside Simon O’Neill’s rather acerbic tenor; that was Christian Gerhaher, whose meticulous, lieder-style approach was rather overwhelmed by the vividness of the colours that Rattle conjured from the orchestra. It was a bit too brilliant, a bit too dry-eyed.

  • At the Barbican, London, on 21 December. Box office: 020-7638 8891. The Strauss and Mahler concert is available on BBC iPlayer until 12 January.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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