MUSIC / Illuminations of immortality: Anthony Payne on the opening concert in the LSO's month-long 'Festival of Britten' at the Barbican

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The Independent Culture
AFTER opening its 'Festival of Britten' with a programme that paradoxically contained no Britten at all, the London Symphony Orchestra devoted its second concert, on Sunday evening, entirely to the composer. It amounted to a survey of his first maturity: none of the works included dated from later than his 28th year, an absolutely astounding achievement given the sheer mastery and emotional variety of the music - something which we have rather too much taken for granted.

No more so, perhaps, than in the Simple Symphony, the earliest of the pieces performed. The 20-year-old master's reworking of ideas from his wunderkind years, it was intended for use by school orchestras and amateur players, and has perhaps been patronised for being merely charming and professionally adroit. But it yields far more than that.

The LSO players, under Rostropovich, seemed to be easing themselves into the programme, and it was not until later that we heard truly cogent playing, but the joyful exuberance of much of the work, and the touching emotion of the weightier third movement, still made their highly individual effect. Not just a toy symphony, this, despite the self-deprecating indications 'Boisterous', 'Playful', 'Frolicsome', but a work of expressive concentration and genuine freshness in thought and language.

As it happens, the ideal running order for the works programmed was also their chronological order of composition, and it provided something of a shock to hear next the rarely performed Piano Concerto, a stark example of what was an almost experimental phase in Britten's development. Wild distortions of oddly simplistic material suggest the darkly disturbing emotions which he soon learnt to control with classically finished surfaces.

Sometimes one doubts whether the material was chosen with this expressive end in view, or whether Britten, impatient to create and finding ideal material hard to come by, leapt to elaborate first thoughts, disguising their inadequacy with determined brilliance. Whatever the deeper reasons behind this provoking work, its expressive images remain firmly lodged in the mind, forging ties with French and Russian music of the time, and above all with Frank Bridge, whose own Phantasm for piano and orchestra is perhaps not well enough known for that fact to be generally acknowledged.

The Concerto was brilliantly and explosively played by Barry Douglas, who understood its world of exaggeration and glittering shadows, and the orchestra supported with fire and address. If chinks in Britten's psychological armour were momentarily displayed during this period, then Les Illuminations, his masterly settings of Rimbaud's prose poems, shows how with exquisite command of style he was to set about securing a perfect stability. The brilliance and the darker shadows are still all present, but are subsumed in Britten's Gallic stylisation, and in a performance as superb in technique and characterisation as Lynda Russell's was here, the work makes a profound impression.

As, of course, does the marvellous Sinfonia da Requiem, which brought the evening to a powerful conclusion. Here is one of the finest examples in all Britten of a controlled expression of disruptive force, as the Dies Irae movement finally explodes catastrophically and subsides. This hair-raising sequence came off splendidly under Rostropovich's direction, the players channelling their corporate energy with savage force, and the symphony's serene conclusion focused once more the artistic control that Britten brought to bear on his wide-ranging vision.