Festival Music

London Symphony Orchestra

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

five stars

IT ALMOST seemed less of a surprise that Sir Simon Rattle should embark on Mahler’s vast Ninth Symphony without a score in front of him on Saturday than it had done that he had the whole of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances in his head the previous evening.

These two concerts saw the return of the conductor to the Festival for the first time since 2006 with the Berlin Phil, and although his is one of those names that will always immediately be associated with the big stuff, these two evenings seemed designed to show the immense range of the man, especially in partnership with this orchestra.

The Mahler was astonishing. At its conclusion, he was indicating every individual note to the players, which did not seem fussy in the least. There, and earlier, the attention-grabbing quietness and concentration they brought to the music was utterly remarkable. Intensity, yes, but also something more spiritual – and that Adagio was just the end of the story. In the second movement, Rattle had asked for, and won, an entirely different style of robust gypsy style of performance, the edge to the playing of the winds including some splendidly rustic bassoon.

The bold shapes of the central movements of the Mahler were entirely of a piece with the performance of the Dvorak and Janacek’s Sinfonietta on Friday. The LSO may be elite musicians but there is also always a crucial element of showbiz there – the line of nine extra trumpets in the organ gallery required for the Janacek is the sort of thing you expect to see from them. The flash of a “Pops” orchestra is in the mix, and was to the fore for the well-loved melodies on that concert’s second half.

The first was in partnership with Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman for Bernstein’s Auden-inspired Symphony No.2 “The Age of Anxiety”, fulfilling the soloist’s promise to the composer that he’d play it for his 100th birthday. From its haunting twin-clarinet opening to the sweeping urban landscape of its conclusion, it is a daunting, vast and complex work for all involved, the audience not excepted.

Zimerman was superb – and never more than on the Art Tatum-like lightning-fingered jazzy section – and Rattle clearly revelled in the challenge of communicating this big, tricky work.