Sir Simon Rattle launched his LSO tenure with this audacious mix-and-match concert of native repertoire, setting the template for subsequent season openers. As a declaration of intent, the event was a success, delighting the audience in the Barbican Hall. Whether it is likely to stand up to repeated listening – and watching – is more debatable. If you were present it can be fun to search for the back of your own head but the use of relatively unobtrusive robot cameras precludes other incidental amusement. Expect no Lucerne-style star-spotting sweeps of the stalls. Even the conductor’s spoken inserts, as displayed on twin video screens on the night, are culled from this penny-plain DVD / Blu-ray presentation, presumably a slimmed-down version of what ARTE viewers have seen already. Video direction feels a little fidgety. On the other hand the famously restrictive Barbican acoustic is flattered by the sound engineering (in stereo rather than surround) while the Blu-ray disc option boasts spectacular visual clarity.
First up is Helen Grime’s Knussenish offering, bright, dance-like and later incorporated into a longer composition entitled Woven Space, Nothing here is gratuitous or ugly – unlike the opening gestures of 2019’s equivalent novelty, Emily Howard’s Antisphere! There’s real Knussen later on too, the familiar Third Symphony (1979) sounding less warm and fuzzy than it used to but with a compensating clarity. After its pivotal climax Rattle’s musicians realise Knussen’s semi-consonant chordal processional with rapt precision. The second half of the work even has the emotive quality lacking elsewhere.
Not even Thomas Adès himself can have directed as many performances of Asyla (1997) as Sir Simon. This, his third commercial recording has more agility than previously with the notorious nightclub (sanctuary or madhouse?) arguably stealing the show. That said, its percussive shenanigans remain disappointingly opaque in at least one respect: the visual focus is on the varieties of cowbell.
The evening’s central offering is an apparently sensitive and brilliant account of Harrison Birtwistle’s Violin Concerto (2010), in which the camera clarifies the presence of collegial step-outs including flute, piccolo, cello (sedentary), oboe and bassoon. These were virtually invisible from my seat on the night. As was Christian Tetzlaff’s current, ageing rock-star look. He has a music stand – no crime – and remains a formidable technician. Birtwistle doesn’t swamp him either. It was instructive to be reminded of Knussen’s stylistic debt but best not say more about the twenty-five minutes of fragmentary glowering: I am not on the wavelength of this much-admired composer.
One might feel the same about Elgar and his Enigma Variations with only this distinctively paced, oddly manicured account to go by. Rattle refuses to linger in the obvious nostalgic places, nor does he go for superficial excitement in the quick-fire Portraits. Too often his profound knowledge of the score morphs into a reluctance to let the music speak for itself. He has a way of switching from unidiomatic-sounding lightness to a ladling on of intense vibrato, neither quite hitting the spot much as one admires the refinement and professionalism. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s recent Proms rendering under Martyn Brabbins had a naturalness absent here. Violins are not placed antiphonally and there is no (optional) organ, electronic or otherwise.
I hope I’ve not been too picky. Those who warm to the presentation of abstract, non-theatrical fare in audio-visual format should be happy enough and there are full booklet notes to compensate for any penny-pinching on screen.