wed 12/12/2018

Jansen, LSO, Rattle, Barbican review - nature's splendours and a fond farewell | reviews, news & interviews

Jansen, LSO, Rattle, Barbican review - nature's splendours and a fond farewell

Jansen, LSO, Rattle, Barbican review - nature's splendours and a fond farewell

Richly imaginative 20th-century music sees out a long-serving LSO violinist in style

Rattle at the opening concert of the season on SundayDoug Peters/PA Wire

The LSO and Sir Simon Rattle have been launching their new season with a mini-festival, if not so-called, mixing and matching some delectable repertoire. This was their third concert in four days – and its programme was wonderfully shaped, bringing together three works written within 11 years of each other, each from a composer with a unique voice that spoke for his whole nation in one way or another.

Janáček’s Sinfonietta, which the same team also featured recently at the Edinburgh Festival, makes a near-perfect concert opener, with its grand fanfares and tough-hewn, close-harmony blocks of orchestral splendour. It’s far from typical Janáček, though, and oddly enough it’s possible that major fans of the Brno-based composer will be the ones who like it least: its rather impersonal, militaristic concepts are far from the intimate subtleties of his piano music and operas. This was 1926 and the music sounds at times a little too prescient of the next decade. And one might wonder if Aaron Copland snaffled a few ideas from the piece in 1942. This was a taut, rigorous account, with the smooth, extrovert yet unfussy brass ranged along the back of the orchestra, and plenty of that big, fat string tone that Rattle loves to encourage: a fanfare for a very uncommon Czech.

Janine JansenSzymanowski’s First Violin Concerto brought in the unshakeable Janine Jansen (pictured right) as soloist. The Dutch violinist articulated this hypersensitive composer’s sensual imagination with a natural flow and innate, poised musicianship that still incorporated intensity that wouldn’t disgrace a heavy metal guitarist letting rip, her fast vibrato splendidly suiting the work's febrile soundworld. This one-movement concerto, dating from 1916, wonderfully displays the Polish Szymanowski’s magical orchestration, full of glistening, dragonfly-wing delicacy – a sheen of suspended cymbal, flickering woodwind, high harmonics – and certain slivers seem drawn from Stravinsky’s Firebird, Debussy’s Prelude a l’après-midi d’un faune and Saint-Saëns’s Havanaise. Rattle and Jansen, splendidly attuned to one another, brought us the composer's vivid imagination in oil paints rather than watercolours. And – as too often – some of us were left longing for an acoustic that would really enhance such beauty of detail, which the Barbican frankly doesn't. Someone, please build these guys a new home…

Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, roughly contemporaneous with the Szymanowski, isn’t most people’s favourite Sibelius symphony for nothing. You can almost smell the Finnish pine forests in the hushed rustles of strings and the lonely bassoon solo in the first movement’s core, the music emerging from its darkest moments into a springlike ferment of joy; and the finale, with its great soaring horns – associated with a flight of 16 swans that the composer watched in wonder – is completely irresistible. Nobody knows better than Rattle how to milk this music for its emotional, virtually mystical highs, with dug-in strings, open-hearted woodwind and brass in full blaze mode. In his hands the marvellous climaxes override any little glitches that might occur along the way, and admittedly this wasn’t entirely a vintage LSO evening – I’ve heard them play with tighter ensemble, sharper edges and a greater range of colour. Lennox MackenzieBut the real star of the night was sitting no. 3 in the first violins. Lennox Mackenzie is retiring, having spent most of his working life with the LSO after joining them in 1980. He was also the LSO’s longest-serving chairman and has been better recognised than most orchestral musicians ever are, awarded last year with an OBE and the Royal Philharmonic Society/Association of British Orchestra’s Salomon Prize (pictured above in April 2017 on his way to receive the prize). This concert was an emotional farewell: Jansen gave him her bouquet and Rattle made a deeply touching speech, declaring, “Bless you, old friend,” before leading Mackenzie offstage with him as a final gesture. There were tears.

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