fri 15/10/2021

LSO, Rattle, Barbican review - a glimpse into Bruckner’s workshop | reviews, news & interviews

LSO, Rattle, Barbican review - a glimpse into Bruckner’s workshop

LSO, Rattle, Barbican review - a glimpse into Bruckner’s workshop

A compelling case made for each version of the 'Romantic' Symphony

Big bass sound in BrucknerAll images Mark Allan/LSO

For most Bruckner fans, the multiple editions and revisions of his symphonies are a problem. But Simon Rattle sees it differently; for him every edition offers more music to explore.

That was the thinking behind this programme, presenting the Fourth Symphony in one and a half versions, a “discarded” scherzo and finale in the first half, and a complete version in the second. That layout might seem pedagogical or pedantic, but Rattle is also able to demonstrate exactly why these differences matter. His Bruckner is always compelling, and there is a rigour about it that only comes of deep engagement with the scores. By presenting these intermediate versions, and in blazing, vibrant accounts, his passion for the subject shines through  and it’s addictive.

The nominal reason for this concert was to premiere a new edition of the symphony, by the German conductor and scholar Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs (Anton Bruckner Urtext Gestamtausgabe, Vienna 2021). The Fourth Symphony exists in three different versions, of which the second is the most often performed. But the second version itself evolved through several variants between 1876 and 1881, most significantly by the replacement of the scherzo with an entirely new movement and the finale by a movement based on the same themes but radically different. Cohrs has created an edition that allows each of these different variants to be performed, through the judicious observation of various cuts and ossias, all marked into the score. Rattle’s programme was designed to perform as much of the edition as was possible in one go, hence the “discarded” movements in the first half. Simon Rattle introducing BrucknerThe complete performance in the second half even included a transition passage that has never before been published, and possibly never performed. If all this sounds nerdy, it is, but Bruckner enthusiasts tend to be obsessive enough to follow along. Rumour has it that a recording of the programme is planned. No microphones were out this evening however: let’s hope they do it at the acoustically superior Cologne Philharmonie, where they are giving the same programme next week.

The LSO was arranged on the Barbican stage to give full sonic impact. The basses were lined up along the top tier, projecting so well we could hear the buzz of their strings. The horns sat behind the second violins stage left, without risers, which was frustrating as they were the stars of the show and were all but invisible. The trumpeters played narrow-bore German trumpets, unusual for this orchestra, but certainly appropriate for Bruckner.

The discarded Scherzo itself exists in two different versions, of which this was the latter (1876). It is a pleasant, if conceptually limited movement, based on the alternation between solo horn figures (the submerged, but thankfully audible, Timothy Jones) and scurrying string flourishes. Rattle seemed to treat this music with delicacy, as if it were a fragile, ancient object. And, in fact, the simpler textures here probably warrant such an approach. The contrast was stark between this and the later Scherzo in the second half, but the greater sophistication and drama of the latter was exaggerated by Rattle’s cautious treatment here. Rattle and the LSO in BrucknerThe earlier Finale, known as the “Volksfest” finale, for a folksy dance episode mid-way though, is a radical departure for Bruckner. It opens with a chromatically descending sequence it the strings, a device you wouldn’t associate with him. But Rattle’s programme was cunning here: having heard the Volksfest in the first half, the number of chromatically descending lines in the first movement became clear after the interval. In a brief address at the start, Rattle pointed out that the original finale was written in a single tempo, another radical departure. Rattle maintained that tempo, or stayed close to it, throughout, and showed how it could work. He was rigorous, but without being rigid, still shaping the phrases, while always with an ear for the relations between them.

The lesson of the single-tempo finale informed much of Rattle’s reading of the full symphony in the second half (now conducting without a score, an impressive feat for the premiere of a new edition). Throughout this performance, of what was billed as the 1881 revision, tempos were carefully calibrated and chosen with clear intent. In the first movement, climaxes were often fast and driven, and where always thrilling. Build-ups achieved their effect through a growing sense of relentlessness and inevitability. In the quieter passages, Rattle was able to rely on tonal stability and lustre of the orchestra, especially of the woodwinds, but without ever lingering. Rattle and the LSO at the BarbicanParticularly impressive was the interplay between the solo horn and the woodwind counterpoints, the flute in the first movement recapitulation, the clarinet in the scherzo, always carefully balanced. In the second movement, Rattle took Bruckner at his word, and kept everything Andante. Here, the climaxes were held back to the main tempo, limiting their breadth and scope. The Scherzo blazed with a fiery intensity. The punchy accents from the brass propelled the music and, again, the sheer discipline of the brisk tempos added to the music’s elemental power. One quirk here, and it is a Rattle trait: at the start of the Trio, he took the tempo right down, playing the woodwind entry absurdly slowly before gradually returning to speed with the strings’ response. An annoying affectation.

No such concerns in the Finale. Again, Rattle was keen to show how much more sophisticated this movement was than its predecessor, but also that the simpler tempo relations of the earlier version gave pointers to the structure. The tempos and textures felt unusually contrasted. The dark tone of the lower brass was ideal for the main theme, but the strings were always able to balance them in the climaxes. In the quietest passages, Rattle took the string tone down to a whisper, the players showing exceptional evenness and control. That new transition felt clumsy and abrupt—not even Rattle could work his magic on it. Never mind. Otherwise, this final movement was a triumph, driven inexorably to its glorious conclusion by an ever-engaged and ever-enthusiastic Rattle. This concert might have been structured like a history lesson, but everything here was compelling, thanks to the committed playing of the LSO and to Rattle’s passionate intensity.

@saquabote

Climaxes were fast and driven. Build-ups achieved their effect through a growing sense of inevitability

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