sun 19/11/2017

Rattle for the LSO: great or just good news? | reviews, news & interviews

Rattle for the LSO: great or just good news?

Rattle for the LSO: great or just good news?

Sir Simon finally committed to London post in 2017

SImon Rattle conducting the LSO at the BarbicanMark Allan

Having manoeuvred to get a new concert hall for London earmarked in principle, Sir Simon Rattle has finally agreed, as we thought he would, to take charge of the London Symphony Orchestra in 2017. By then, he'll by 62 (though I thought the big idea was to leave Berlin at 64, an appropriate benchmark for a Liverpudlian).

Yes, it’s a good move in many ways, even if I can’t be as unreservedly ecstatic as the press at large, which has at least done the classical world the service of giving it a recognition outside the arts pages thanks to Rattle’s recent visit with the Berlin Philharmonic. The best known of living British conductors is just the sort of celebrity they want in the City, and his ongoing presence will guarantee reams of publicity. No doubt he’ll also be streamlining the revolutionary education programme he initiated in Berlin.

That’s where the questions start, though. Let’s begin with Rattle’s insistence on a world-class hall. Sure, the Barbican and the Royal Festival Hall are only “serviceable” – Rattle’s word about the former – when compared to great world concert halls like Birmingham’s Symphony Hall (I wouldn’t place the Berlin Philharmonie, democratic in design though it may be, as having the best of acoustics). But should the millions be spent on a luxury when there are two things that need to come first: saving arts institutions which won’t be around to perform in the new hall if the cuts continue, and putting education first so that there will also be audiences to go and listen to the concerts in 10 or more years’ time?

Rattle at the Barbican with Kavakos and Berlin Philharmonic playersNo doubt the argument runs that the technologically up-to-the-minute venue will help to encourage and promote education. But it could be an awfully long way off (pictured right by Mark Allan, Rattle at the Barbican with violinist Leonidas Kavakos and Berlin Phil players last month). In the meanwhile, will audiences stop going to the Barbican because “I’ve heard it isn’t very good”? And is having to work against problematic acoustics entirely a bad thing? Do the players need, as Rattle put it, the equivalent of a Stradivarius in a violinist’s hand? It’s said that the celebrated Philadelphia string sound only came about from having to make a glow in a dead space. The other week, Sakari Oramo found a depth and perspectives I wouldn’t have thought possible conducting Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin in the Barbican. You can still tell, and feel, an electrifying interpretation and the quality of the playing in both London’s current big venues.

As ambassador for music, Rattle can't be surpassed. As conductor, though? Is he really the greatest figurehead for a team which regards itself – wrongly, in my opinion – as London’s greatest orchestra? Don’t get me wrong: I grew up inspired by the young Simon’s inspirational City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and London Sinfonietta programmes, and there are recordings from that era which still strike me as the very best (nearly all his CBSO Mahler, for instance, or the stunningly engineered dream interpretation of Sibelius’s The Oceanides).

Robin TicciatiIt's since struck me how many of Rattle’s performances more recently have felt over-interpreted – “micro-managed” has been the buzz word – to the extent where you lose the bigger picture. Has he been so much in love with what the unquestionably top-notch Berlin players can do that the work in question comes second to the sound? Nor would he be on the top 10 list of conductors I go to for the essential freedom, the rubato, the flow of music-making.

Younger choices might have transformed the sometimes self-satisfied aura of the LSO. Robin Ticciati (pictured above) has given performances with them of stunning alertness, sweep and originality. Long-term continent dweller Jonathan Nott could take the programming of old alongside new even further: I’ve been struck by how often Rattle has repeated many of his once innovative programmes. The LSO has now to recover from the adverse aspects of the Gergiev effect – a real liability latterly – and start producing concerts that rival those of the BBCSO under Oramo, the LPO under Jurowski and even the Philharmonia under Salonen.

All that these charismatic teams need are more publicity, for they're doing everything else right. Times have never been better for all the UK orchestras, with terrific principal conductors in every post (though the CBSO will be as sorry as Birmingham audiences to see the already great Andris Nelsons depart at the end of this season). Let’s see how, and if, Rattle can raise the stakes.

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