LSO/Rattle review – a spine-tingling reminder of the live sounds we have missed

一世f ever a musical occasion mattered more than the music itself, here it was. Social distancing meant the hall could not be completely full on Tuesday afternoon for the London Symphony Orchestra’s post-pandemic return. But the mere public address announcement “Welcome back to the Barbican Hall” drew loud and prolonged cheering from the LSO’s first audience in 14 月, as well as answering applause and waving from the players themselves. For everyone, it was good to be back.

“I never speak before concerts,” said a beaming Simon Rattle as he took to the podium, microphone in hand, “but if there was ever an occasion to break the habit of a lifetime, here it is.” The sense of grateful reunion was palpable throughout, even if the cold truth for the LSO and London is that Brexit and reduced arts spending mean Rattle is soon to relocate back to Germany at the head of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.

You could feel the pent-up excitement, even so, in the exhilarating way Rattle launched the LSO into Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. The sound of an orchestra playing full out was a spine-tingling reminder of the live sounds we have missed for a year and more. The LSO was spread out across an unraked stage in a Covid-secure way, more distant than usual, woodwinds deep in the lefthand corner, brass in a line on the right, percussion ranged at the back, a magically eloquent harp on the wide left, and the strings, all masked, spaciously arrayed in front of Rattle, who sometimes conducted sitting down.

Britten’s forensic scoring allowed each group of players an early touch of the ball, as football commentators would put it, and at the close the applause was justifiably celebratory. Three reflective movements from Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande Suite followed, a necessary change of mood in the wake of the plague year, and one that gave the LSO’s strings the chance to display the richness of tone that Rattle has brought to them since he returned from Berlin in 2017. Dvořák’s Opus 46, Slavonic Dances, completed the programme. This is not this conductor’s most natural musical territory, and Rattle’s approach seemed at times a little more forced, and the playing less idiomatic than is ideal. Not that anyone in the hall much cared about such things, and rightly so. Music and musicians have waited a long time for this. We needed it.