LSO/Rattle review – clarity and beauty bring insights to Mahler and Tippett

Barbican, London
The LSO were nigh-on flawless in a pair of concerts featuring late Tippett and Mahler, and the world premiere of Helen Grime’s extravagant sonic tapestry Woven Space

Simon Rattle’s latest pair of concerts with the London Symphony Orchestra found him returning to late Mahler with the Ninth and Tenth symphonies, the latter in Deryck Cooke’s performing version. Each symphony was prefaced by a shorter work: the Tenth by Michael Tippett’s The Rose Lake; the Ninth by the premiere of Helen Grime’s Woven Space, the opening movement of which, Fanfares, had already been heard at Rattle’s first concert as the LSO’s music director last September.

Woven Space takes its inspiration and title from a site-specific sculpture by Laura Ellen Bacon, woven from willow twigs and installed in Chatsworth Garden in Derbyshire from 2010 to 2015. Grime echoes Bacon’s work by weaving sonic fragments and melodic shapes into tapestries of sound that coalesce, disperse and reform as the textures alternately thicken, lighten and glare through the score’s three movements. The outer sections have a brittle quality that is in danger of turning insubstantial, though the central slow movement-cum-scherzo, with its slowly shifting string writing, carries deeper emotional resonance. With a Mahler-sized orchestra at her disposal, Grime’s scoring is at times extravagant, and marked by a fondness for tintinnabulatory effects supplied by an array of tuned percussion. It arouses mixed feelings, but Rattle conducted it with considerable energy and drive, and the playing was dexterous, elegant and crystal clear.

Helen Grime on stage with the LSO after the premiere Woven Space.
Helen Grime on stage with the LSO after the premiere of Woven Space. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Woven Space, in many respects, stood apart from the three remaining works, all of which were written towards the end of their respective composers’ lives and confront mortality. Mahler’s Ninth, written after a diagnosis of what proved to be a fatal heart condition, is usually seen as a self-conscious farewell to to life, but in Rattle’s performance the leave-taking was as much angry as resigned. A jolting intensity characterised the shifting moods of the first movement, and the Ländler and Rondo-Burleske were all bitter irony and wit. The LSO sounded glorious in the finale, as its moments of noble assertion gave way to the uneasy calm of despairing acceptance.

The second concert was the more remarkable of the two, partly because it fulfilled Rattle’s longstanding ambition to reintroduce The Rose Lake into the repertory of the LSO, who gave the world premiere in 1995. Tippett’s “song without words for orchestra”, completed in 1993 when he was 88, is quite simply astonishing. It is the work of a man contentedly aware of the beauty of the natural world even as the end approaches. Inspired by a trip to Lake Retba in Senegal in 1990, it depicts the sunlight turning the lake’s waters pink, in music at once complex and extraordinarily serene. The performance was well-nigh faultless, with Rattle and the LSO wonderfully alert to Tippett’s exquisite scoring throughout.

Rattle likens The Rose Lake’s spiritual calm to the final pages of Mahler’s Tenth, which strive for and attain genuine peace after the terrible turmoil that precedes it. It is in part thanks to his advocacy that Cooke’s performing version has entered the symphonic repertory, and his interpretation remains outstanding. Tautly controlled, it traverses a tremendous emotional arc from despair to transcendence, while remaining aware of the innovations in harmony and structure that would have pointed new ways forward for Mahler had he lived. You can hear the performance, together with The Rose Lake, on the LSO’s YouTube channel until July.

•There will be a repeat performance of Woven Space and Mahler’s Ninth Symphony at the Barbican, London, on 26 April. Box office: 020-7638-8891.


Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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