Britten’s Spring Symphony from the LSO at the Barbican review ***

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LSO, LSO Chorus, Tiffin Choirs, Sir Simon Rattle, Philip Cobb (trumpet), Gabor Tarkovi (trumpet), Elizabeth Watts, (soprano) Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano), Allan Clayton (tenor)

Barbican Hall, 17th September 2018

  • Harrison Birtwhistle – Donum Simoni MMXVIII
  • Gustav Holst – Egdon Heath
  • Mark-Anthony Turnage – Dispelling the Fears
  • Benjamin Britten – Spring Symphony

Now here was an object lesson in not doing one’s homework. Benjamin Britten’s music was my first introduction to the classical world and remains one of my all time fave composers, (mind you the list is pretty short). However, I am not persuaded by all of his work, including, I remembered just that tiniest bit too late, the Spring Symphony. So always check that the piece you think you are going to hear is exactly that at the time of booking and always, especially if it is a work of substance as here, listen to it before attending. Both rules ignored on this occasion in the most spectacularly cavalier fashion.

Still it was the LSO. Under the baton of Sir Simon with the LSO Chorus and the combined Tiffin Choirs, Girls’, Boys’ and Children’s. (BD sadly, saddled with tone deaf parents, was never a contender for the first of these crews). And, in the Spring Symphony, three excellent soloists, two of who I knew, Alice Coote and Elizabeth Watts, and one only by reputation, Allan Clayton. All the voices were superb, there are some tricky vocal pyrotechnics required in certain of the poetic settings, and the logistical challenges of getting everyone on stage (or just in front) were adroitly handled. At points the Barbican Hall stage was stuffed to the gills. Sir Simon really does need that bigger stage.

The Spring Symphony was commissioned by Russian emigre conductor Serge Koussevitsky, who had earlier sponsored BB’s breakthrough Peter Grimes. As so often, writing it took a lot out of BB, three years from start to finish, on and off. He originally intended to set Latin texts against a symphonic backdrop but, as was BB’s wont, he persuaded himself that English poetry would be bettered suited. When BB sets canonic English poetry on a smaller scale the results can be astonishing, Les Illuminations, the Serenade, the Nocturne, Phaedra and, I reckon, the Cantata misericordium. And obviously the War Requiem shows he was a dab hand with large scale forces. But the Spring Symphony doesn’t quite hang together IMHO, choruses and orchestra sometimes at odds with each other.

It is (just about) discernibly a symphonic structure, a la Mahler, the first part made up of five sections (Spenser, Nashe, Peele, Clare and Milton, with various ideas laid out, the second a slow movement with three settings (Herrick, Vaughan and Auden), the third a scherzo again with three poems (Barnfield, Peele and Blake) set to music and the rousing finale, setting Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher’s Elizabethan paean to the month of May, London, to thee I do present. There is lots of invention, texture and tone throughout, BB avoids throwing the kitchen sink at everything, with many passages of light orchestration, and percussion, harp, certain woodwind and brass, especially trumpets, (a theme throughout the programme), all get a good look in. Since all the poems reference Spring, doh, there are plenty of Spring-ey tunes, but also some darker material; this was a message of hope in the aftermath of War but BB recognised not all was rosy in the European garden. It just isn’t an entirely satisfying whole for me.

Sir Simon has always been a dab hand with BB, even from his days with the CBSO, though this was at the more portentious end of his interpretative spectrum. Still everyone really does seem to be having fun at the LSO and the Chorus now that he as at the helm. So maybe I need to cheer up, raise my game and work a bit harder on this particular piece.

The concert opened with a new brass fanfare from Sir Harrison Birtwhistle, a gift to Sir Simon. It was, literally a blast, with a laugh at the end from the sole tuba. This was followed by an excellent reading of Holst’s Egdon Heath. I have always liked Old Gustav’s second most famous orchestral piece after you know what, (which the BBCSO is trotting out soon accompanied by Prof Brian Cox – interesting). That heady mix of Englishness, Ravellian orchestration and a hint of Eastern mysticism draws you in but it takes a conductor of Sir Simon’s insight to really persuade. It is a bit scary, even from the off, with the growling double basses, I for one wouldn’t want to go anywhere near Hardy’s heath based on this music. An elusive string melody is set alongside a sad processional in the brass and some meandering oboe. It never really lands anywhere despite the echoes of a dance, a simple stepwise, siciliano, and it can appear to go on a bit. Not here though.

Dispelling the Fears written by Mark-Antony Turnage in 1995 creates an atmosphere of urban, rather than rural, unease, led by the two trumpets of the LSO’s principal Philip Cobb and the Berlin Philhamonic’s Gabor Tarkovi. The two played pretty close together for much of the piece, creating some stunning harmonies, especially lower down the register, against the usual MAT cloth of Stravinsky, jazz, a whiff of blues, some earlyish Schoenberg. It is quite furtive, never really breaking out, with constant dissonance emerging from clashing semi-tones. There are a few passages of relative peace but mostly it prods and pokes. Like most of MAT’s work it really works though you are not always initially sure why.

So there we go. The LSO and Sir Simon once again showing off the Best of British. With the slight caveat that this may not actually be the best of the best British composer (with apologies to Purcell and Byrd).

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