Classical Album Reviews: LSO Plays Britten Orchestral Works and “All These Lighted Things” from Antwerp Symphony Orchestra

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Sir Simon Rattle revisits the music of Benjamin Britten and Elim Chan once again draws on her remarkable ear for detail.

Sir Simon Rattle has a history with Benjamin Britten’s music, and he’s recorded quite a bit over the course of his career. His latest album with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) revisits two selections he first taped while music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony in the 1980s and ‘90s — the Sinfonia da Requiem and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra — while adding a new opus to the conductor’s discography in the form of the Spring Symphony.

The latter is one of Britten’s more neglected compositions. A setting of poems about the season for three soloists, chorus, and orchestra, it was written for Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. By turns menacing and exuberant, the 1949 score threads a fascinating needle between the style of Britten’s early maturity (the Violin Concerto, Peter Grimes) and his later efforts (Gloriana, Billy Budd, the War Requiem).

Rattle’s performance here benefits from an excellent stable of soloists in soprano Elizabeth Watts, mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, and tenor Allan Clayton. Coote, in particular, shines during Part 2’s “Welcome, Maids of Honor,” her rich tone and fine diction lending Britten’s leaping melodic writing a beguiling plushness.

The London Symphony Chorus and combined forces of the Tiffin Boys’ Choir, Tiffin Children’s Chorus, and The Tiffin Girls’ School Choir navigate their parts with force and energy. The Symphony’s scherzo-like Part 3 is agile and lean, while the big moments in Part 1’s setting of Milton’s “The Morning Star” are wonderfully resonant.

Rattle draws a performance from the LSO that’s fully alive to the music’s stark contrasts of mood and character. In addition to colorful woodwind playing in Part 2, there’s an edginess to this interpretation that results from its focus on dynamics, rhythm, and pacing. As a result, the concluding “London, to Thee I Do Present” is deliriously cathartic, especially when all join together for the robust chorus of “Sumer is icumen in.”

There’s a similar feeling of release to be found in the LSO’s account of the Sinfonia da Requiem. While Rattle’s approach to the music remains similar to his tack from Birmingham, this time around there’s a bit more urgency to the reading, which clocks in about a minute faster.

Even so, nothing’s breathless and there’s no stinting on shapeliness. The “Lacrymosa” glows ominously, its tension level knowingly paced. In the “Dies irae,” the LSO brasses dispatch their triplet hockets with style and shining, cuivré tone. The closing “Requiem aeternam” offers an expansive sense of musical space as well as a warm, soaring account of the movement’s main tune.

The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, performed without the optional narration, is delivered here with a profound sense of ownership. If Rattle’s performance doesn’t top Britten’s own with the same orchestra, it affords plenty of poignancy in the woodwind and string sections, spry brasses, colorful percussion, and, to top it off, a well-balanced rendition of the closing fugue.

Conductor Elim Chan’s remarkable ear for detail is the star of All These Lighted Things, her new, dance-themed album with the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra.

Its title comes from a short set of pieces by Elizabeth Ogonek, who wrote them in 2017 for Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Highly abstracted though Ogonek’s approach to dance forms here may be, All These Lighted Things’ three movements are highlighted by a constant sense of invention and blazing colors. Particularly striking are the languid textures of the murky middle one.

The Suite No. 2 from Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé channels a similar sound world. Though Chan’s approach to the “Danse générale” reads a shade restrained, there’s no denying the clarity or warmth of the Antwerp ensemble’s performance. Indeed, “Lever du jour” is sumptuous and beautifully directed while the “Pantomime’s” flute solos sound fresh and improvisatory.

But it’s in Chan’s compilation of movements from the first two suites from Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet that her virtuosity as a conductor shines the brightest. A host of subtleties emerge, from the quietly suspended woodwind tones in “The Montagues and Capulets” to the marshmallowy textures in the middle of “Friar Laurence,” the burbling accompaniments and pattering flute figures in the “Balcony Scene,” and the luminous play of light and shadow during “Romeo and Juliet Before Parting.”

Taken with their judicious tempos and strong feeling for the music’s narrative character, Chan and the Antwerp SO provide a performance of this favorite that is revelatory in all the right and needed ways. Keep an eye on this pairing: they’re worth watching.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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