Britten’s second-biggest choral work after the War Requiem has been a rare visitor to London of late, so good on the London Symphony Orchestra for programming it to open its Barbican season. Sir Simon has his feet under the table now, and what better way to herald a new spring for the Rattle-led band than with performances (two of them, so expect an LSO Live release in due course) of the variegated Spring Symphony.

Allan Clayton, Elizabeth Watts, Simon Rattle, Alice Coote and the LSO © Doug Peters | PA Wire
Allan Clayton, Elizabeth Watts, Simon Rattle, Alice Coote and the LSO
© Doug Peters | PA Wire

Passing swiftly over the question of whether this patchwork of poetic settings constitutes a symphony in more than name (it doesn’t, but the alliteration is catchy), the still-youthful Britten was on a creative roll in 1947 when Serge Koussevitsky asked him to compose a large-scale work for chorus and orchestra. The result is a piece that has fun with texts, textures and effects – and even, in the glacial austerity of its introductory setting “Shine out, fair sun”, with the audience. ‘You think my music’s difficult?’ the composer seems to be saying, ‘Then try this.’ Needless to add, before long he’s back on familiar song with evocations of merry cuckoos and driving boys.

With forces that threatened to burst the Barbican’s walls, Rattle’s account of the Spring Symphony felt like a concrete reminder that he’d like a new concert hall, please. The London Symphony Chorus was squeezed apologetically into a space behind the orchestra but still managed rousing and sometimes rollicksome accounts of the grateful choral episodes, while several children’s choirs from the Tiffin schools (splendidly drilled, impressively musical but low on symphonic lung-burst) were obliged to sing from the stalls aisles and the cow horn, its wrangler Christopher Larkin bathed in limelight, to moo plaintively from the circle.

Elizabeth Watts and Allan Clayton made light of the score’s mantraps, their seraphic voices playing slalom games in the viciously composed and deceptively jaunty George Peele setting, “Fair and Fair”, whereas Alice Coote delivered her rendition of WH Auden’s ominous “Out on the Lawn” very carefully. Rattle at the helm was in his element throughout: smiling, encouraging and robust with artistic certainty.

© Doug Peters | PA Wire
© Doug Peters | PA Wire

The concert’s first half had been no less spirited, with the LSO given a shop window for its virtuosity via some popular Czech offerings. The cluster of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances that opened the concert felt closer to a symphony than the Britten work, especially as Rattle in his interpretations seemed less exercised by the word ‘Dances’ in their title than by their symphonic possibilities. A trio of evergreen favourites, Nos. 1, 2 and 7, framed the less familiar third and fourth dances, the former a gypsy-like scherzo and the latter a long, lush slow movement.

Janáček’s thrilling Sinfonietta offered a vista of pure showbiz as eight supernumerary trumpeters stood behind the main orchestral body to deliver their framing fanfares. Rattle’s conducting gripped thanks to immaculate pacing and momentum rather than through 3D effects; moreover, he coaxed luscious playing from all his sections in the three inner movements, so much so that it was practically a concerto for orchestra, especially when the LSO’s sumptuous low strings combined to ring forth with lustrous basso beauty.

All told there was a tingle to this concert, as if musicians and audience alike saw clearly for the first time what riches lie ahead for the LSO. It was a special day, a Rattle day, with likely many more to come.

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