Many, I suspect, would have preferred to hear Simon Rattle’s first London Symphony Orchestra concert of 2021 under different circumstances. Scheduled for the Barbican with a socially distanced audience, it was moved online after lockdown, and recorded in LSO St Lukes on the original concert date of 7 January, days before the LSO temporarily suspended rehearsals and recording and before Rattle announced his much discussed decision to leave London and take up the principal conductorship of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in 2023.
“We hope our music helps dispel some of the gloom of the last year,” Rattle announced before the performance. It didn’t quite, as far as I was concerned, though it was superb. The programme – Berg’s Violin Concerto with Leonidas Kavakos and Schubert’s “Great” Symphony, No 9 in C Major, D944 – remained unchanged: the concert was dedicated, meanwhile, to this year’s bicentenary of the start of the Greek revolution against Ottoman rule and the participation of the British philhellenes within it, so the evening began with the Greek national anthem.
The Berg concerto was wonderfully done. Written in 1935 after the death from polio of Manon Gropius, the teenage daughter of Berg’s friend Alma Mahler and her second husband Walter Gropius, it grieves for a life lost before its time, and hearing it during the pandemic, inevitably perhaps, heightened its impact and meaning. Kavakos played with unforced lyricism and extraordinary sweetness of tone: the final bars, in which the violin line soars heavenwards, have rarely sounded so consoling or so beautiful. Rattle’s conducting, meanwhile, was intense and marvellously detailed, finely alert to the darkly shifting colours of Berg’s orchestration.
Schubert’s “Great” Symphony, meanwhile, seemed almost to resolve the concerto’s tensions in a noble, exhilarating interpretation, wonderfully majestic at the start and closing in a mood of fierce exultation. It was superbly played, too, the string tone rich throughout, the brass sounding wonderfully warm, the all-important oboe and clarinet solos executed with exuberant, dexterous poise.