Britten at the Barbican – LSO play the Four Sea Interludes and the Sinfonia da Requiem

Gianandrea Noseda

London Symphony Orchestra and Gianandrea Noseda at the Barbican: Sunday September 29, 2013

After an invigorating afternoon exploring Britten on Film with the Aurora Orchestra in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, which I reviewed for the Classical Source website, it was an easy decision to cross the Thames to the Barbican for two of Britten’s most enduring orchestral works, the Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes and the Sinfonia da Requiem, given by the London Symphony Orchestra and Gianandrea Noseda.

The identity of the conductor made this decision easier, for Noseda had already conducted an electrifying performance of the War Requiem two years prior, subsequently released on LSO Live. In that performance his aptitude for Britten was abundantly clear, the full emotion of the piece coming through.

This performance of the Sinfonia da Requiem also carried with it a shattering emotional impact, a performance of blood and fury with a central Dies irae that chilled the veins with its barely concealed terror and anger. Noseda conducted at a daringly fast pace, his feet leaving the ground on occasion, but the orchestra stayed fully in check with stunning clarity as the dance collapsed around us.

Leading up to this was a Lacrymosa of tangible dread, begun by a sharp report on the timpani that was so loud the horn players had to stick fingers in their ears! Gradually the music assumed the nature of an approaching storm, which one broken in the Dies irae found solace in the Libera me, where bittersweet violins soared above the expansive bass lines.

The Four Sea Interludes were a little less successful – not technically, but more through their placement. Some performances, from the first note, have you stood on the Suffolk shore, Ed Gardner being a modern example. Noseda had us close to the coastline but not ankle-deep in the water, and the sense of place and identity was elusive at times.

Despite that, there were many fine things in the performance – the thematic tendrils of the Moonlight interlude crept upwards beautifully whenever they were heard, while the Storm was a formidable example of orchestral power, though again it felt like we were on land rather than at sea. Sunday Morning was impeccably judged, though, sunny but with a hint of the turmoil still to come.

Balancing these works were Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.3, which may well have been an influence on Britten’s own Piano Concerto, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No.6. The soloist in the concerto, Nikolai Lugansky, gave a spectacular account, technically beyond reproach. The quixotic slow movement was especially successful, with Lugansky somehow remaining in control even in the fastest moments. Prokofiev’s instinctive writing was fresh of the page, with particularly strong contributions from the LSO woodwind.

Shostakovich was another prominent figure in Britten’s life, especially later on. His Symphony No.6 may be lopsided in timing (the first movement is longer than the other two combined) but it matches up extremely well. After a solemn slow movement, with time taken for contemplation, there followed an enthusiastic second movement Allegro before the helter-skelter Presto finale, where Noseda turned on the afterburners. It was a reminder of the influence of Rossini on Shostakovich (Britten, too) and this virtuoso orchestral performance ensured the door slammed firmly shut with the thrilling final chord.

Details on the Barbican Britten festival, forthcoming in November can be found here, and will be previewed on this blog in a couple of weeks’ time.

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