Hot on the heels of the blazing publicity surrounding the commencement of Simon Rattle’s musical directorship of the Berlin Philharmonic, not to mention the vast web of publicity for his new recording of Mahler’s 5th Symphony (just in case we were to forget there were posters placed at various strategic points around the Symphony Hall foyer), Rattle has been back in his adopted "home" town for two concerts with his former orchestra, also managing to squeeze in a concert with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group.
The Brahms Variations on a Theme by Haydn with which the concert began, whilst perhaps not the most inspired choice of opening work, was shaped with loving care, Rattle conducting without a score and often gesturing and reaching into the orchestra to draw playing of genuine expressive beauty from the players. From the initial announcement of the stately opening theme the performance was marked by sensitive dynamic control and a sense of attention to detail that whilst sounding as if it had been the result of painstaking rehearsal must, in reality, have been far from it. The delicacy was strikingly apparent in the quicker variations, the woodwind being particularly impressive, seamlessly flowing in variation four and ebullient in variation five.
The indisposition of Natalie Dessay prompted a change to the initially advertised programme and we were gratefully treated to two Szymanowski song cycles, the Songs of an Infatuated Muezzin Op. 42, for which tenor Timothy Robinson stepped into the beach and four songs from the Love Songs of Hafiz Op. 26 of some seven years earlier with a radiant Katarina Karnéus as soloist. Szymanowski’s oriental indulgences reached their most heightened state in the Muezzin songs, a heady, wonderfully coloured and scented blend of exoticism and eroticism. These are challenging songs for the soloist and Timothy Robinson, who I suspect must have had precious little time to learn them, gave an admirably atmospheric performance, particularly impressive in capturing just the right vocal timbre for the impassioned Muezzin. Although his voice possibly lacked a little penetration in the opening song the overall effect certainly did not lack conviction. In comparison the Love Songs of Hafiz are less heavily imbued with the eastern influence melodically and harmonically although the lush orchestration is still beautifully realised with delicate splashes of Ravelian colour adding to the appeal. The underlying eroticism of the songs was somehow heightened all the more by the innocence of Karnéus’s demeanour, her voice lucid and effortless. No surprise then that Rattle couldn’t resist repeating the third song, after turning to the audience and apologising for the "self indulgence".
Some years ago I was at Symphony Hall for a performance of Ein Heldenleben that I seem to remember left me somewhat under whelmed. No such qualms this time as the players strode through the opening bars with such charisma that I had the impression of an orchestra re-vitalised. The simple fact of the matter is that it is difficult to believe any orchestra giving a pedestrian performance under a man who untiringly continues to demonstrate the enthusiasm and passion on the podium that Rattle exhibits. I have never heard the battle scene so vividly portrayed, the clank of physical combat and the thunder of cannon fire breathtakingly vivid, in the wake of which the love music was all the more gloriously tender. Peter Thomas took the demands of the treacherous solo violin part in his stride and solo horn Elspeth Taylor was deservedly brought to her feet by Rattle who climbed through the orchestra to congratulate her at the conclusion. A memorable performance of a work that seems strangely autobiographical given the heroism and tenacity that many saw in Rattle during his tenure in Birmingham.
On the evidence thus far Sakari Oramo has shown admirable promise in his new role but there is little doubt that Rattle has been, and will continue to be missed.