LSO/Rattle review – unexpected connections, irresistible immediacy

Barbican, London
This chalk-and-cheese bill of modern titans Stravinsky, Birtwistle and Adams was brought to life with exceptional clarity and precision

Musically and temperamentally, Harrison Birtwistle and John Adams are poles apart as composers, and at first sight their works hardly seem likely to sit well together in a concert. And when those pieces are each half-an-hour long and dominate the programme, preceded only by one of Stravinsky’s most original works, it seems an even more unlikely prospect. But Simon Rattle’s exceptional performances of Birtwistle’s The Shadow of Night and Adams’s Harmonielehre with the London Symphony Orchestra swept aside any thoughts of a possible mismatch.

It helps, of course, that the two works are among their composers’ finest achievements, landmarks in the history of orchestral music in the last half century. Harmonielehre is by far the better known of the two, for The Shadow of Night has received few performances here since Christoph von Dohnányi and the Philharmonia gave the UK premiere at the Proms in 2003. Birtwistle describes it as “a slow and reflective nocturne”, but it’s a nocturne in the sense of being about the night, and the unease that darkness brings, rather than a lyrical effusion of the kind perfected by Chopin.

But where Birtwistle’s meditation on melancholy is fundamentally inward and mysterious, Adams’s surging, pounding tribute to the harmony and gestures of late Romanticism is unashamedly extrovert. It’s also a score that tests the mechanics of minimalism to destruction, using its repetition to generate the power and expectation that only a much richer harmonic palette can articulate properly. It’s a score that perfectly suits Rattle’s ability to focus musical energy with pinpoint accuracy, and the LSO responded with a performance of irresistible immediacy, just as they had laid out the intricacies of The Shadow of Night with astonishing clarity.

The Stravinsky that had begun the concert was the Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Rather than the standard 1947 revision of the score, Rattle opted for the 1920 original, complete with alto flute and alto clarinet, which was only rehabilitated after Stravinsky’s death. It gives an extra edge and bite to a work that profoundly influenced Birtwistle when he was establishing his distinctive voice as a composer; it made the perfect opener here.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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