While everybody else at the Southbank Centre is immersed in the year-long festival “The Rest Is Noise”, the Philharmonia Orchestra is pursuing a complementary path. Its concerts through to the end of the season are a traditional mix, though with short series devoted to the pair of 20th-century composers whose centenaries fall in 2013 – Lutoslawski and Britten.
Anybody wanting to perform Britten this year faces a lot of competition. There is barely an opera house or concert hall in the UK that is not putting on a centenary tribute, which may explain why the Philharmonia’s small clutch of concerts features only one piece by Britten per programme, and that often not a major work.
Nevertheless, this opening concert was thoughtfully planned. When the 10-year-old Britten attended the premiere of Frank Bridge’s The Sea in 1924, he was “knocked sideways” by it, and soon afterwards Bridge became his composition teacher. Aside from this connection, The Sea is forgotten now and it was interesting to hear Edward Gardner and the Philharmonia making an enthusiastic case for it. The half-hour orchestral suite meanders rather, but it is easy to imagine why the young Britten was attracted to its continental, Debussy-like sound-world.
The obvious pairing of Britten with Shostakovich, his friend and contemporary, will be everywhere this year. This programme offered Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No.2, played with combustible energy as a rather heavy-handed romp by Kirill Gerstein.
Then it was on to Britten himself. There is going to be ample opportunity this year to hear his problem pieces and the Spring Symphony is on the edge of this group. Its selection of poetry is not Britten’s most inspired and the settings evoke unhappy visions of mock-Tudor pageantry, foreshadowing the opera Gloriana, and an invasion of Morris dancers. It takes a strong performance to bring it off, which it largely had here, with Susan Gritton and Allan Clayton well cast as the soprano and tenor soloists, and mezzo Christine Rice bringing gravity to the W.H. Auden setting, which is the best of the work. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Chorus, together with the CBSO Youth Chorus and Children’s Chorus, were bright-voiced and eager, and Gardner is as compelling a Britten conductor as one could desire in this centenary year.