sat 15/12/2018

LSO, Rattle, Barbican Hall review - a mixed bag of British composers | reviews, news & interviews

LSO, Rattle, Barbican Hall review - a mixed bag of British composers

LSO, Rattle, Barbican Hall review - a mixed bag of British composers

Birtwistle, Holst, Turnage and Britten in the 2018/19 season opening concert

Allan Clayton, Elizabeth Watts, Simon Rattle and Alice Coote in Britten's 'Spring Symphony'All images by Doug Peters/PA Wire

A tradition seems to have been invented. First nights of the LSO’s seasons with Sir Simon Rattle as its Music Director start with a concert of music by British composers. The first one last year had Helen Grime, Thomas Adès, Birtwistle, Knussen and Elgar. This year’s selection was Birtwistle (again), Holst, Turnage and Britten. Rattle described the formula as a mixture of the brand new, the undiscovered and an "established masterpiece". As with most things going on in this fissile country at the moment, there were some very fine moments, but it left mixed feelings.

The inclusion of Birtwistle in both years might start to make him look like an artista di regime, but Donum Simon MMXVIII, a five-minute fanfare for brass, woodwind and percussion jointly commissioned by the Barbican and the LSO and premiered last night, showed his craftsmanship and economy of expression (Rattle and Birtwistle pictured below). Starting with tuba and bass trombone (Peter Smith and Paul Milner), it proceeded to add layers of sound. There was a wonderful moment, again with tuba, with an "organum" of high woodwind. If the balance, precision and symmetry of the piece, with its short statements, its alternation of energy and repose recalled Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments, then that was, in the immortal phrase of Heinrich Böll, neither intentional nor accidental but unavoidable.

Rattle encouraged the warmest of melodic shapes from the double bass section

Rattle gave some interesting context to the inclusion of Holst’s Egdon Heath. He recalled the words with which Adrian Boult made the young Rattle aware of the piece: “Do you know Egdon Heath, dear boy? It’s terribly difficult to play. Nobody likes it if you do, but it’s a masterpiece.” Rattle described the piece as "moody, bleak and magnificent" but conducted a performance of it which was above all remarkable for its tenderness, notably in passages for strings. He encouraged the warmest of melodic shapes and sounds from the double bass section of the orchestra.   

I found it difficult to warm to the Turnage double-trumpet concerto from the mid-1990s, Dispelling the Fears, played by Philip Cobb and Gábor Tarkövi, respectively the principal trumpets of the LSO and the Berlin Philharmonic. These are players who are capable in their day jobs of grabbing an audience by the lapels at the start of Mahler 5, but the material of the Turnage felt laborious and repetitious. In retrospect, the 1990s seem a time when Turnage could just take far to long to get from one kind of complexity to another. The applause at the end of the piece was dutiful rather than warm.Britten’s Spring Symphony does carry an official warning: the publisher Boosey and Hawkes feels obliged to make potential hirers of the parts fully aware that it is “a major undertaking from all points of view. a challenging work on all fronts...” With a large orchestra, multiple choirs and poem texts from several centuries, it does present demands, but for me, there was one absolute highlight of the evening which overshadowed the complexity, the occasional sense of overload, and even Britten’s tendency to tweeness.

Allan Clayton’s performance, and in particular in “When Will May Come?”, brought the thought home that he is in the line of the very greatest tenor interpreters of Britten. He understands and elucidates every phrase, he can deliver the strength and the anguish as required, but above all the lyrical beauty and the moments of hushed reverence come across with heart-stopping grace. It was a stunning performance which will stay in the mind for a long time. The London Symphony Chorus and three choirs from Tiffin School were excellent, with the LSC’s diction and unanimity and the wide range of volume quite remarkable. Alice Coote, clutching the score close, brought a lieder singer's sensitivity to her contribution, and Elizabeth Watts's tone was resplendent. 

The LSO is in great shape, it emerged at the reception before the concert: average concert attendance last season was 80 per cent; engagements for its digital output are just shy of 100 million; new initiatives in the “Centre for Music” project are expected; and a first tour ever by the orchestra to South America is planned. The Rattle era is well under way.

Allan Clayton is among the greatest tenor interpreters of Britten. The lyrical beauty and the moments of hushed reverence come across with heart-stopping grace

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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