The slow build-up towards Simon Rattle’s departure from London seems as drawn-out as the long anticipation of his arrival in 2015. Such is the lead-time involved in the contracts of top conductors, though at least it allows plenty of scope for planning in advance.
With a year to go before he steps down as music director of the London Symphony Orchestra, Rattle still has some big projects in the pipeline. A free open-air concert in Trafalgar Square and a Berlioz spectacular in St Paul’s Cathedral are yet to come this summer.
His Barbican concerts also promise some novelties. Rattle has had a fondness for Kurt Weill’s “sung ballet” Die sieben Todsünden (The Seven Deadly Sins) since his Birmingham days, and it transfers well to concert performances. This was Brecht and Weill’s last collaboration, penned shortly after they fled Germany in 1933, and the work has razor-sharp teeth. It is a satire on American capitalism, pithy, stinging, brief (just over half an hour) and hugely seductive musically thanks to Weill’s use of waltzes, foxtrots and tangos.
Given how lightly much of it is scored, this performance had an unusually rich, sonorous quality (those years with the Berlin Philharmonic have left their mark on Rattle) and Magdalena Kožená matched that with singing of more lyric beauty than verbal rasp. Florian Boesch relished the bass role of the Mother, and three fine singers — Andrew Staples, Alessandro Fisher and Ross Ramgobin — completed the family quartet.
The first half of the programme was imaginative. Rattle had chosen a mixed bag of Weill, including some real rarities, showing the artistic journey the composer took from Weimar Berlin in the 1920s to refuge as a Jewish exile in New York. Boesch was excellent again, admirably gritty in the short cantata Death in the Forest. Staples was vocally opulent in “Lonely House” from Street Scene. There is so much Weill we ought to hear more often.
At a time when concert halls are finding it difficult to get back their audiences, it was good to see a well-filled Royal Festival Hall to greet Mitsuko Uchida. There were some rarer items here too, as Kurtág’s Játékok (miniature “Games” for piano solo) have not been taken up as keenly by many other pianists as they have by Uchida.
In the past she has threaded groups of them through pieces by Schubert, but this time Mozart was the anchor. Few would dare open a recital in the silent cosmos of “Play with Infinity” from Book 3 of Játékok or hold such a large audience hushed through “Fugitive Thoughts about the Alberti Bass” from Book 7.
That led naturally to the Mozart. Mining every romantic possibility made rather a meal out of the C Minor Fantasia, K. 475, but the late B Flat Sonata, K. 570, was light, fluent, with much introspective heartache in the slow movement, and Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze, central Uchida territory, added fire to her trademark expressive poetry. Her loyal audience must be used to feeling there are times they hardly dare breathe.