Music review: London Symphony Orchestra: Adams, Debussy and Ravel, QPAC

A beautifully crafted program, meticulously played by one of the world’s great orchestras and conducted by the inimitable Sir Simon Rattle.

Under the baton of Music Director, Sir Simon Rattle, the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) opened its double concert program in Brisbane on this its fourth tour to Australia over a 120-year history. Offering two distinctively different programs, but cleverly matched, the visiting orchestra comprised 114 players with larger than usual percussion and timpani, as well as in excess of 55 string players, quadruple woodwind and a wide-ranging brass section.  

Recognised as one of the world’s leading orchestras, the LSO has an extraordinary provenance, founded on the belief that music should be available to everyone, everywhere. It maintains that ideal through LSO Discovery, the Orchestra’s community and education centre. It was also one of the first orchestras to be shaped by its musicians, the tradition continuing with players involved in the management and artistic choices including engagement of conductors. In part this may explain not only its virtuosity but the depth of individual and personal commitment.   

Rattle is a world leader as an orchestral and opera conductor, and something of a superstar. He has an astonishing biography, including having been Principal Conductor at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) and Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Berliner Philharmoniker. He has been MD of the LSO since 2017. 

Expectations were therefore high and the Brisbane Concert Hall bristled with anticipation as Rattle appeared to a rousing welcome. This thoughtfully presented program and performance certainly did not disappoint, but was splendid in every way.  

John Adams’ Harmonielehre (a study of harmony) is an extraordinarily powerful modern work from 1985, with the LSO becoming a major exponent of the piece. A particular favourite of Rattle’s, it requires enormous musical forces, especially percussion and timpani. The work blends the harmonic minimalism of Adams with a surprisingly expressive lyricism. Drawing on the high romanticism of the early 20th century, Adams emulates much that we recognise in the music of Mahler and Strauss, rather than in Schoenberg’s atonality. Its choice was therefore well-placed in a program alongside Debussy and Ravel, who can be seen as Adams’ natural predecessors.     

Inspired by a dream of a tanker taking off in San Francisco Bay and launching itself like a rocket into the sky, Part I commences with a massive set of brutalist chords from percussion and brass. This created a rhythmic metallic orchestral soundscape that was as overpowering as it was impressive. Rattle’s beat was insistently precise as the work morphed through various chromatic changes towards a gentler melodic section. Here we heard a lyrical sweetness in both woodwind and violins with a haunting horn solo and muted trumpet, while the darker strings were lush and sweeping. The final shuddering conclusion arrived with a full cacophony of sound and was brilliantly managed.  

Part II, entitled The Anfortas Wound, is a dark and brooding movement based on the legend of the Fisher King and resonating with Mahler’s only finished movement in his Tenth Symphony. Commencing with grumbling basses and cellos, there followed some lengthy funereal passages from woodwind and strings that were perfectly phrased by Rattle with his lithe hand movements to the players, cajoling and encouraging. He also defined the textures of each orchestral section with extraordinary clarity. A quite beautiful solo trumpet and muted horns led to the jarring screech of violins with the final softest of pianissimos under Rattle’s deft hand.  

Part III, Meister Eckhardt and Quackie, was inspired by a dream about Adams’ infant daughter and starts gently and lyrically with a magical shimmer of strings, building to a huge momentum of sound. Here Rattle was in his element, fully engaged in bringing his orchestral forces through the whole gamut of emotions and musical colours to a thunderous conclusion. 

Debussy and Ravel were perfect composers to choose to showcase different aspects of the virtuosity of the LSO players and of Rattle himself, slotting well into this concert program. The LSO’s recognised ability to play pianissimo at an astonishingly low volume was also a major bonus, contrasting well with Adams’ work. 

Debussy’s La Mer is a glorious piece of music, with its bright opening, as day dawns over the sea, moving to the shimmering and joyous light that plays on the waves in the afternoon, and then taking in the evening storm and its aftermath in the final movement. Conducting without a score, Rattle made it clear this is a work he knows backwards. His was a powerful interpretation, lovingly conducted with great attention to detail to the orchestral dynamics, light and shade, as well as to individual solos. Additionally, he brought the sea’s many moods vividly to life through the colours and textures of the music, so that one could almost smell the salt in the air. 

In typical Rattle fashion, he breathed with the music as he engaged the players in the narrative, encouraging the beauty of the string section, coaxing the playful sounds of the woodwind and obtaining the gentlest of pianissimo from marimba, harp and piano. He elicited marvellous textured playing from the double basses, brass and timpani in the storm sequence – one of the finest deliveries of such a beautiful work. 

Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé Suite No.2 has some similarities to La Mer, but Rattle managed to find subtle differences in the works and added special touches of his own, with much colour in the strings and woodwind in particular. The opening daybreak sequence is one of Ravel’s finest musical gems, and Rattle produced marvellous soft pianissimo from the flute and piccolo, across pizzicato violins. It was followed by a playful pantomime with a long seductive flute solo, plus rippling wind and strings where Rattle introduced a welcome depth of sound. The final dance, a frenetic bacchanalian romp, saw Rattle throw everything into a high-octane, well-delivered finale. 

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After such a strong and clearly energetic performance, it was extraordinary that Rattle then suggested some encores to an enthusiastic audience. Delius’ ‘Intermezzo’ from the opera Fennimore and Gerda was first, a charming English-styled lush work with some gorgeously phrased pianissimo from the woodwind. It was followed by Benjamin Britten’s ‘Fugue’ from The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, a bright and breezy short piece that was very well-received. 

This was a wonderful concert of a finely balanced program showing off the capabilities of the LSO and its Music Director. Rattle’s extraordinary talents as one of the world’s leading orchestral conductors shone through in his powerful and charismatic performance, as did his amazing technical prowess on the podium. 

QPAC presented London Symphony Orchestra’s Adams, Debussy and Ravel on one night only on 28 April 2023.

The London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle will perform at the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, May 1-3; and at Hamer Hall, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne, 5-6 May.

Suzannah Conway is an experienced arts administrator, having been CEO of Opera Queensland, the Brisbane Riverfestival and the Centenary of Federation celebrations for Queensland. She is a freelance arts writer and has been writing reviews and articles for over 20 years, regularly reviewing classical music, opera and musical theatre in particular for The Australian and Limelight magazine as well as other journals. Most recently she was Arts Hub's Brisbane-based Arts Feature Writer.