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Heart in Mouth, for a Taxing Rarity
Anthony Tommasini | The New York Times | 23 November 2013

Before beginning a Britten program on Thursday night with the New York Philharmonic, the conductor Alan Gilbert welcomed the audience at Avery Fisher Hall to what he called the orchestra's "small part in the worldwide celebrations" of the towering British composer in the year of his centennial. The concert took place the day before what would have been the actual anniversary of his birth. Britten died in 1976.

Mr. Gilbert was being too modest. This program was a significant contribution to the Britten year. It paired the composer's well-known Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, composed in 1943, with a major Britten score that, inexplicably, is seldom heard: "Spring Symphony," a 45-minute work for three vocal soloists, chorus, children's chorus and large orchestra, completed in 1949, when Britten was 35.

The subject of this choral symphony is the passage of winter to spring. Britten sets 13 texts ranging from a 13th-century lyric to a cryptic Auden poem. The Philharmonic's only previous performances of the piece were 50 years ago under Leonard Bernstein.

But Mr. Gilbert also told the dramatic backstage story that began on Wednesday morning when the tenor Paul Appleby, who was to sing the Serenade and one of the three solo parts in the "Spring Symphony," withdrew because of illness. Mr. Gilbert explained that on such short notice, the Philharmonic could not find a tenor to sing both Britten works, especially a rarity like the "Spring Symphony." Michael Slattery was tapped to sing the Serenade; his sensitive performance became this appealing tenor's unexpected Philharmonic debut.

The tenor Dominic Armstrong, also making a Philharmonic debut, intrepidly agreed to take on the challenge of the "Spring Symphony," even though he had never seen the score before Thursday morning, Mr. Gilbert said. Looking purposeful, he sang the demanding solo role with assurance, stamina and subtlety.

In the "Spring Symphony," Britten grouped the settings of the texts into four sections, like movements of a symphony. The first deals with the arrival of spring; the second "paints the darker side," Britten wrote in a commentary, with images of "fading violets, rain and night." Then comes a series of dances and the courting of couples; finally, there is a frenetic May Day festival, a "kind of bank holiday," Britten wrote, which ends with the children's chorus almost shouting the 13th-century song "Soomer is i-coomen in," as the chorus breaks into exuberant collective "Ah's" while the orchestra spins away deliriously.

If this description makes the piece seem like a joyful pastoral, Britten plumbs the ambiguities of the subject through the complexities of his music. In the opening chorus, "Shine Out," a 16th-century anonymous prayer, the chords have harmonic tension within that makes the pleading for the "fair sun" to appear seem a little desperate. "The Merry Cuckoo," the next movement, with words from a Spenser poem, heralds this traditional "messenger of Spring," with his "trumpet shrill." But there is tension below the merriness in this animated tenor aria, with its leaping lines, which Mr. Armstrong dispatched with vibrant sound and crisp diction.

The splendid mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke brought dark colorings and penetrating richness to her solos. The luminous soprano Kate Royal was consistently strong, especially in a coy yet unsettling duet with Mr. Armstrong, "Fair and Fair" (a George Peele poem), in which the swirling roundelays in the vocal lines and orchestra become dizzying.

Mr. Gilbert drew out the modernist strands of this score. The performance from the inspired orchestra, the New York Choral Artists and the impressive Brooklyn Youth Chorus was a highlight of the Britten year.

The Serenade opens with a mysterious prologue for solo horn, played on the natural horn (without valves). There were some rough spots in the playing of this challenging solo by Philip Myers, the Philharmonic's longtime principal horn player. Still, he conveyed the mystical atmosphere and, switching to modern horn, excelled in the subsequent sections of the work, which sets poems dealing with the themes of nighttime, sleep and death.

Mr. Slattery has had particular success with early music, including Dowland songs. His voice was somewhat light for this Serenade. Still, the tenderness, directness and youthful beauty of his singing won you over. For a graduate of the Juilliard School, a New York Philharmonic debut, especially an unplanned one, is a big deal. During the ovation, it was gratifying to see Mr. Slattery so visibly touched, and relieved.
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