He may have come relatively late to Bruckner, but Simon Rattle has now conducted most of the later Symphonies and here tackled the Sixth (1881) which even some of this composer’s keenest advocates have avoided. The result proved to be a highlight of his LSO tenure so far.An account with Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment suggested a notable interpretation in the making, confirmed here with a powerful yet flexible take on the initial Majestoso (why the Spanish spelling remains an intriguing question). Its martial tread was firmly established, and while those lilting then granitic themes which follow were ably incorporated, a rhythmic incisiveness persisted over a purposeful development before being heightened in the reprise. Nor did Rattle underplay the coda, modulating far and wide in what ranks among Bruckner’s most eloquent passages. No less impressive was the Adagio – hardly less profound than those of the ensuing Symphonies, here with a seamless unfolding in which the climax was given space without losing formal poise, then a coda where accrued expressive tension fairly melted away.
The shortest of Bruckner’s mature Scherzos is also his trickiest to pace. Rattle found the right balance between edginess and stealth, with just a hint of guile, and a deft wit in the Trio which has eluded most. Such humour becomes more brazen in the Finale and while Rattle had its measure, there was a slight lack of focus in the development then later stages of the reprise to suggest he has yet to envisage this movement whole. Horns, too, had passing insecurities – maybe through their placing at stage-right, with remaining brass behind the woodwind – but, as the coda rang out with commanding intent, there was no doubt Rattle had drawn from the LSO a reading of this quixotic Symphony (as edited by Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs with its authentic revisions to texture and articulation) to rank with the finest.
Bruckner Six may be a recent addition to Rattle’s repertoire, but Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936) has long been a part of it and this account was one of insight borne of experience. The initial Andante emerged inevitably to its enveloping climax before subsiding into muted repose, then the Allegro had incisive yet never headlong energy and, in its central section, jazzy insouciance. Interesting that the final pages brought the only instance of that rhythmic contrivance to have marred numerous Rattle performances over recent years.
Although the Barbican platform is well able to accommodate the antiphonal layout of string groups directed by the composer, its relative lack of perspective marginally undermined the Adagio’s sense of nocturnal evocation. By the same token, this enhanced the final Allegro’s surging energy and folk-inflected vigour on the way to a fervent transformation of the work’s opening music, then a coda whose testing rubato posed few problems on this occasion. Here, as in the Bruckner, the chemistry between Rattle and his musicians could hardly be gainsaid.
This memorable concert was proceeded by a notable account of Bartók’s Second String Quartet (1917), given by the Accendo Quartet as part of the LSO Platforms series which highlights Guildhall School artists. In his opening remarks, cellist Daniel Benn tried to convey the group’s take on this disquieting piece, though that was best left to the musicians as they teased out the ambiguity from the initial Moderato, aggression of the central Allegro then desolation of the final Lento. Hopefully this ensemble will have the chance to refine its interpretation further.