The party for Simon Rattle’s arrival at the London Symphony Orchestra wasn’t just the jubilant one-nighter I wrote about last week: it went on for 10 days. And though it left the LSO in a state of collapse, it built into one of the most lavish celebrations the Barbican has ever staged: a marathon of massive concerts, This Is Rattle, which included Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust and Stravinsky’s three seminal dance-scores for the Ballets Russes – Firebird, Petrushka and Rite of Spring – done in a single night.
The Faust I skipped: it’s not a piece that speaks to me. But the Stravinsky was un-skippable. When would you ever get another chance to hear those three works played together? Weighing up the pros and cons, of course, you might not want to: on a single programme they amount to sensory overload, too much to take in. But it was instructive.
These were the works with which Stravinsky proved himself. They were composed in quick succession. Firebird premiered in 1910, Petrushka in 1911, the Rite in 1913. Hearing them together was to be impressed by the stylistic distance they travel in so short a time, from the romanticism of Rimsky-Korsakov to the provocation of a hardline modernist.
But it also showed how much these pieces have in common: a shared cultural identity whose DNA survives the shift from opulence to brutalism. Rattle’s readings told that story with decisive eloquence. Taking the music chronologically, it was inevitable that the orchestra would be tiring by the time they reached the Rite – which left Petrushka as the programme’s highlight, brilliant in its mechanistic virtuosity. But Rattle is no fool: he paced the evening to ensure there was some energy left in the tank, and to the end it was impressive. How he’ll keep that standard going through the season is the only question.
Gavin Bryars got famous in the 1970s on the experimental music circuit, thanks to minimalist-leaning works like Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, which featured the recorded voice of an unknown, old, homeless man singing with tremulous conviction on a loop tape while live instruments embraced the repetitions in a halo of soft, shifting chords. Half irritating, half seductive, it was of its time but with a magic that endured last week when Bryars – elusive these days – made a rare appearance with his own ensemble at Heath Street Baptist Church, NW3, playing Jesus’ Blood as audience-bait. Forty years on, it still annoys/seduces, with the lingering insistence of an earworm. And its poignant, endlessly repeating tune is in my head right now, where it’s been stuck for days. Mission accomplished, I suppose.
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