Time flies. It seems like last week, but it’s actually been a year since Simon Rattle’s triumphant homecoming to take charge of the London Symphony Orchestra. And while relationships between conductors and their bands usually involve honeymoons that fade into mutual loathing, this one hasn’t put a foot wrong yet. It’s still a lovefest with outstanding concerts like the one that opened the new season at the Barbican.
Observing Rattle’s promise to give time to English repertoire, the programme started with a new orchestral fanfare by Harrison Birtwistle (a firebrand now matured into a grand old man but still producing music of a kind that dazzles as it challenges), and then moved on to other composers who, across time, have combined edge with accessibility.
Gustav Holst’s Egdon Heath, written in 1927 with seven beats to a bar and only the vaguest sense of where the first one falls, stands testimony to how radical a figure Holst could be – in music that still offers lyricism. And Britten’s Spring Symphony – the main work on the programme – is the most feelgood of mid 20th-century scores: a choral jamboree that, for all its moments of dark, questioning magic, leaves the audience delirious with pleasure after good performances.
This one was definitely good, even if Rattle didn’t quite catch the abandonment – impassioned, headstrong – in the music. The Tiffin School Choir was enchanting. And the soloists – Elizabeth Watts, Alice Coote and Allan Clayton – represented the best of British singing.
As for the best of British choral singing, the pendulum swings to and fro; but last week in Tonbridge School Chapel it was pointing at Tenebrae, the super-classy a capella group who were part of a delightful and distinctive festival called Music@Malling.
West Malling is the town in Kent around which everything in this festival happens – most of it in churches, including the ancient Malling Abbey which is occupied these days by an enclosed order of Anglican Benedictine nuns. They come out for the music, so I’m told, although they didn’t on the weekend I was there – which meant they missed some wonderfully bespoke events, including the Tippett Quartet playing Debussy before joining forces with the string ensemble Chamber Domaine for what technically counts as melodrama: readings from the World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon (by actor Charles Dance) underscored with music by Vaughan Williams, Howells and Frank Bridge.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection