When Simon Rattle arrived as music director of the London Symphony Orchestra, he seemed to have settled for the last major post of his career. Then events, not least Brexit, broke in: he decided to return to Germany from the 2023-’24 season as principal conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Meanwhile, almost two years of his tenure in London were lost to the pandemic.
The LSO must feel that fate was not on its side. The good news, however, is that Rattle is using his remaining time here to maximum effect with a bit of adventurous programming.
His latest pair of concerts each involved a major premiere. Unsuk Chin had an early success in 2002 with her Violin Concerto, but decided she would ever write just one concerto for any instrument. The meeting with the violinist Leonidas Kavakos made her change her mind and now she has returned, 20 years later, with the Violin Concerto No 2, entitled Shards of silence (“Shards of silence”).
Out of silence, the solo violin attempts an opening idea that tentatively extends to the higher corners of the instrument’s harmonics. A line, a phrase, begins to merge and it forms the core of what follows. In this concerto, Chin looked beyond the brilliance of the work’s predecessor to explore darker and sometimes violent feelings beneath the surface.
Kavakos was a tireless soloist, engaged in an almost constant dialogue with the orchestra, although not all the material is memorable. As so often in Chin’s music, the orchestral writing shone with freshly minted combinations of sounds, and it was this, rather than any material content, that kept the attention going through the concert’s nearly half-hour, single movement.
In the second half, Rattle looked at two works composed in 1924. A dense, weighty performance of Sibelius’s Symphony no. 7 could have benefited from inhaling a brighter Finnish air. The Suite from Bartok’s Ballet The Miraculous Mandarin worked up an exciting head of steam.
The second concert was another one for the adventurous. It opened with the premiere of Julian Anderson’s Suite of Exiles, his versatile meditation on longing for one’s homeland through the ages. Pandemic cancellations mean the complete Exiles will only be heard in Munich later this month, but the LSO has already made some moves and this Suite fills more of the picture. Its three sections form a well-balanced whole, drawing from a sense of timelessness that goes back to Odysseus and Psalm settings (which makes the London Symphony Chorus sing at the effect from afar) and exuberant sympathy for those in exile is. Siobhan Stagg radiated compassion as the soprano soloist.
The rest of the concert flew from piece to piece – Mahler’s “Blumine”, the third movement from Hans Rott’s Symphony in E, Webern’s epigrammatic Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op 6 – until it landed on a lovingly played performance of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7. Rattle and the LSO sounded in top form, happily returning to business after so much disruption.