The first all-Stravinsky BBC Prom was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra in 1962 to celebrate the composer’s 80th birthday. The 35-year-old Colin Davis conducted a hefty programme including the Symphony in C, Oedipus Rex and The Rite of Spring – a reminder, as the Times put it, “of the enfant terrible behind today’s revered master”.
Almost 60 years later, the LSO’s 2021 Proms appearance was another Stravinsky-only affair, marking the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death with three of his short, strange “symphonies”. The Royal Albert Hall was the busiest I’ve seen it this season – a nearly full house – and the audience stamped and roared with delight at the end. But the “revered master” drawing the crowds on this occasion was surely the LSO’s music director Simon Rattle.
The Rattle effect shouldn’t be underestimated, of course: he made seamless musical sense of the contrasting blocks of material that constitute the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, drawing out a mesmerising twist of solo lines and creating a silken blend of sound in the work’s closing chorale. In the Symphony in C – neoclassical nattiness on a large scale, commissioned by an American philanthropist – there were more exquisitely gracious woodwind solos, gently bumptious brass entries and a quality of string sound achievable only with musicians sitting in a closely packed block (no social distancing for the strings here, though everyone was wearing masks).
Yet not even Rattle could entirely avoid the longueurs of the Symphony in C’s refined meandering – the feeling, at times, of an almost complete absence of direction. In that respect, the Symphony in Three Movements came as a relief: thuds of timpani, deliciously rasping trombones, the harsh catch of accents in the strings propelled us forwards. Rhythmically, it couldn’t have been tighter. But towards the end Rattle made a single, extravagant sweep of his baton and the answering, passionately lyrical flowering in the violins allowed a precious glimpse of a different musical world.
This was an energetic, committed performance. As a programme, though, it made for an unflatteringly monochrome showcase of a composer who revelled in stylistic reinvention and bold musical contrast.