Liverpool native Sir Simon Rattle is unquestionably one of the most respected artists on the current music scene. Conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic for many years, he first appeared at the Prague Spring back in 1994 when he led the Birmingham ensemble in performances of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 and Michael Tippett’s Symphony No. 4. Even by that time he was predicted to have a great future ahead of him, with critics describing him as a phenomenon. When he returned to the festival in 2011 with the Berlin Philharmonic and Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 in A minor – which, incidentally, was the work he performed with the orchestra for their very first concert together – the applause from the audience simply went on and on. As music journalist Petr Veber wrote at the time in Harmonie magazine: “The concert went beyond everything that was and is possible to experience in Prague. It was such an incredible, flawless interpretation of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony – the players, the expression and the mood of the piece; the attentive and perceptive listener could really only just sit there in wonder at the kind of things an orchestra is capable of.”
Which is hardly surprising. As Rattle has said in a number of interviews, it was Mahler, specifically his Symphony No. 2, who influenced him to such a degree; it was his music that made him decide to become a conductor. “It had such a strong influence on me that there was no going back. But it was the same with the Sixth Symphony. I remember exactly where I was sitting, which box it was in Liverpool’s concert hall. I was prepared to spend all my money on recordings with Bernstein, Bruno Walter or Klemper. Anything I could find, really.” (Harmonie, April 2011)
It’s almost symbolic that he is returning to the Prague Spring festival with the same work ten years on, this time heading the London Symphony Orchestra, with whom he appeared for the first time in 1977 as a 22-year-old; he has held the post of Music Director of this orchestra since September 2017. Rattle’s return from Berlin to his home country three years ago was a time of celebration. In his honour London organised a ten-day festival entitled This Is Rattle, which was accompanied by an exhibition of photographs mapping out his career to date. His inaugural concert was described as the event of the year, which saw Rattle open the season with music written exclusively by British composers; in addition to Elgar he programmed four contemporary composers – Harrison Birtwistle, Oliver Knussen, Thomas Adès and Helen Grime. The Telegraph wrote at the time: “It was the kind of programme that would normally half-fill the Barbican, at best. But such is the power of Rattle’s name that the place was packed.” The Guardian noted that “the concert was hugely impressive; the start of this new era for the LSO could hardly have been more auspicious.”
While we are on the subject of their mutual collaboration of many years, we should also mention their unforgettable performance at the opening ceremony of the summer Olympic Games in London in 2012, when the orchestra was joined by guest Rowan Atkinson, performing a brilliant etude as Mr Bean.
The London Symphony Orchestra is one of Britain’s best known music ensembles. Its Chief Conductors and Artistic Directors in the past have included such figures as Sir Edward Elgar, Sir Thomas Beecham, André Previn, Claudio Abbado, Sir Colin Davis and Valery Gergiev. Its current Principal Guest Conductors are Gianandrea Noseda and François-Xavier Roth. The LSO gives regular concerts in Europe and the United States.
The orchestra boasts a unique and varied recording catalogue; while the LSO itself was founded in 1904, it began recording as early as 1912 and has made more recordings than any other ensemble to date. After several decades of collaboration with different companies it started recording for its own label LSO Live in 1999 and now has a discography that numbers more than 100 titles, accessible on all the current major streaming platforms. Since its first Grammy in 2002 the orchestra has won awards from Gramophone magazine, Classical Brit Awards, BBC Music Magazine Awards, the Opus Klassik, Orphées d’Or, Chocs de l’année and Germany’s Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik.
The LSO is also one of the first orchestras to record film music, a venture that began in the mid-1930s. It earned particular recognition for its recording of John Williams’s score for the film Star Wars (1977), which won an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA. The orchestra managed to repeat this unprecedented success forty years later in 2017, when it received all these prestigious awards for its recording of the score for the film The Shape of Water (music by Alexandre Desplat).
Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 in A minor, sometimes referred to as the “Tragic” symphony, was first performed in May 1906. The composer worked on it in the years 1903-1904, when the theatre was closed for the season, and while this was an exceptionally happy time in his personal and professional life, the music is bleak and dejected. The reasons for this contradiction may lie in Mahler’s melancholic, gloomy temperament, marked by a difficult childhood; his whole life the sensitive artist was constantly mulling over complex philosophical issues, thoughts of death and what would come after it. The monumental four-movement opus is literally filled with unnerving music, where extensive dramatic passages clash with wonderfully lyrical moments and evoke an imaginary struggle between light and dark; as the closing notes intimate, it is the latter which is triumphant in the end. It comes as no surprise that celebrated German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler described this symphony as the first nihilist work in the history of music.