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Performances

Harrison Birtwistle [Source: Wikipedia]
21 Sep 2018

Simon Rattle — Birtwistle, Holst, Turnage, and Britten

Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra marked the opening of the 2018-2019 season with a blast. Literally, for Sir Harrison Birtwistle's new piece Donum Simoni MMXVIII was an explosion of brass — four trumpets, trombones, horns and tuba, bursting into the Barbican Hall. When Sir Harry makes a statement, he makes it big and bold !

Simon Rattle — Birtwistle, Holst, Turnage, and Britten

A review by Anne Ozorio

Above: Harrison Birtwistle [Source: Wikipedia]

 

Short as it was, this fanfare was more substantial than it might have seemed at first. Like the composer himself, it was forthright and direct — no messing about. Hence the gruff low timbres and pugnacious sassiness, punctuated by percussion, with woodwind interjection, and later a tuba solo. Characteristic Birtwistle quirks and earthiness. Oddly enough the piece sounded like the way Birtwistle speaks in conversation. Since Birtwistle and Rattle have had a long relationship that goes back to the mid 1970’s, Donum Simoni is personal, like an autographed portrait of the composer with an affectionate dedication to an old friend.

In a masterstroke of provocative but inspired programming, Rattle followed Birtwistle with Gustav Holst. Holst’s Egdon Heath (A homage to Thomas Hardy) op 47 (1927) is rooted in the idea of timeless landscape. Like Hardy’s Wessex, Egdon Heath doesn’t exist, though it feels as though it should. Low rumbling harmonies, long, ambiguous string lines that seem to be hovering between tonalities: like mist above a heath. Tempi speed up, but clear, long lines return and an anthem-like motif emerges : almost Elgarian in the way that it evokes time and place. A single trumpet rang clear and the sounds dissolved into the ether around them. Though Rattle has built his reputation on new music, he has done a lot of Elgar and Sibelius. This Egdon Heath was a beautifully textured tone poem rich with feeling. Rattle is making connections between Holst and Birtwistle, who creates imaginary landscapes, rough hewn from almost organic forces, merging past, present and future in co-existing layers. Some may scream that Holst isn’t “modern” but yes he was, in his own way. Rattle’s gift for intelligent musical juxtapositions is one of his strengths, from which we can learn.

Rattle and Mark-Anthony Turnage have worked together for decades, too. Rattle premiered Turnage’s Remembering ‘in memoriam Evan Scofield’ with the LSO at the Barbican last year and with the Berliner Philharmoniker in Berlin. Turnage’s Dispelling the Fears from 1994/5 is a much earlier work. Trumpet players Philip Cobb and Gábor Tarkövi are principals of the LSO and the Berliner Philharmoniker respectively, so this performance was also a drawing together of past, present and future. The two trumpets stalk each other in dialogue and at cross-purposes, connecting and disconnecting with the orchestra around them. Though it is a serious work, there’s wit in it too, which connected it, in turn, to Benjamin Britten’s Spring Symphony.

Britten’s Spring Symphony (1948) is big, flamboyant and bursting with good-humoured high jinks — an excellent choice with which to open a new season. Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra were joined here by soloists Alice Coote, Elizabeth Watts and Allan Clayton with the London Symphony Chorus (Simon Halsey), the Tiffin Boy’s Choir, the Tiffin Girls’ School Choir and the Tiffin Children’s Chorus (James Day). The Spring Symphony is more than symphony : it is a piece of music theatre, where visuals count. Here, the youth choruses walked into the Barbican Hall and sang from the edge of the platform, up one aisle and on the stage itself. Not quite as stunning as last year’s Berlioz Damnation of Faust when Rattle and the LSO were joined by young singers who seemed to materialize everywhere. But the difference lay in the music itself. Cheerful as the Spring Symphony is, there’s something very “English” about it, and its high spirits need a certain degree of discretion. In terms of Britten’s output it occupies a strange place. It’s not Peter Grimes, but closer to another genre dear to Britten’s heart : community music-making for the sheer pleasure of making music together.

Thus the sprawling structure, four parts with twelve distinct sections, which together form a large, impressionistic portrait of Spring in its many manifestations, a Birtwistle “landscape” of sorts. If there’s any symphonic predecessor, it might be Mahler’s Symphony no 3 where summer rushes in with exuberant vigour. Like the god Pan, artists don’t follow rules : they create. Thus the many different texts from various sources, some medieval, some modern, and the variety of settings and styles. Wisely, Rattle didn’t try to homogenize them, but kept the separate parts distinct, so each shone on its own merits. A blazing “Shine out, fair sun !” set the mood. There are many Brittenesque elements in the piece which would be fun to isolate, and relate to, later works, but it is enough that the work as a whole flows naturally as a series of tableaux. Lively performances : everyone having a good time. Which is as things should be. Rattle, a consummate communicator, knows how to share his enthusiasm with performers and with audiences. A lot of fuss these days is made of grim-faced pious “music education” but this is how things actually work in the real world. Note the final section “London to thee I do present the merry month of May”.

Anne Ozorio

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