Another spring symphony – Benjamin Britten

by Ben Hogwood

In the last week Arcana have explored three very different symphonies with a springtime theme or feel. Now here is a fourth, a very different beast, from the pen of Benjamin Britten.

A number of years back I wrote about this piece for my Good Morning Britten blog, marking the composer’s centenary. There is a lot of scholarly debate as to whether this really is a proper symphony, but as Michael Kennedy points out in his booklet note for Britten’s own recording on Decca, it follows in the tradition of choral symphonies from Vaughan Williams and Holst, while taking more influence from the Mahler symphonies in which voices were used.

The Spring Symphony was commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and began with a rather different concept. When Britten wrote to the conductor, he said, ‘I am planning it for chorus and soloists, as I think you wanted; but it is a real symphony (the emphasis is on the orchestra) and consequently I am using Latin words’.

Things changed, as Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of the composer details. ‘Both Eric Crozier and Elizabeth Sweeting believe that the Spring Symphony owes its existence to a particular Suffolk landscape, ‘somewhere between Snape and Ufford’, writes Crozier. According to Sweeting, Britten visited this spot on a picnic with her, his housekeeper and Pears. It was ‘a glorious spring day, one of those that seem to be out of time; and she believes that this experience crystallized his love of the Suffolk countryside.’

The work actually enjoyed its first performance in the Netherlands, where, with Koussevitsky’s blessing, Eduard van Beinum conducted the first performance at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on 14 July 1949. A little Latin remained, Britten including the ancient song Sumer is icumen in in the work’s climactic final pages.

Britten says this is ‘a symphony not only dealing with the Spring itself, but with the progress of Winter to Spring and the reawakening of the earth and life which that means’. Carpenter maintains that ‘sweetness is the work’s predominant character – most of the poems are in the pastoral tradition – and it is much to Britten’s credit that the music never becomes cloying. This is largely due to the orchestration. Coming to it from the exigencies of the English Opera Group chamber ensemble, Britten treats the full-size symphony orchestra of the Spring Symphony (triple woodwind, four percussionists and two harps) as a palette from which he selects only a few colours at a time, with stunning results.’

Britten recorded the work first, though the version below is a live concert given by Leonard Bernstein in 1963. Once the ear becomes used to the sound it is easy to appreciate the intensity of the performance from singers and orchestra alike:

On record – Lyadov: Choral Music (Academy of Russian Music Chamber Choir / Ivan Nikiforchin) (Toccata Classics)


Two Choruses from the Final Scene of Schiller’s ‘Die Braut von Messina’, Op. 28 (1878)
Glorification for Valdimir Stasov (1894)
Slava, Op. 47 (1899)
10 Russian Folksongs (1899)
Glorification for Vladimir Stasov (1899)
Farewell Song of the Schoolgirls from the Empress Maria Institute, Op. 50 (1900)
‘Drip, Ek’ Fugato (1900)
Glory to Nikolai Andreevich Rimsky-Korsakov (1901)
Hymn to Anton Rubinstein, Op. 54 (1902)
Five Russian Folksongs (1902)
Chorus from Cantata in Memory of Mark Antokolsky (1902)
Music to Maurice Maeterlinck’s ‘Soeur Béatrice’, Op. 60 (1906)
15 Russian Folksongs (1908) – Nos. 3, 9, 10 and 14
10 Settings from the Obikhod, Op. 61 (1909) – Nos. 7 and 10
The Hourly Prayer of St Joasaph Gorlenko (1910)
Three Russian Folksongs (1912)
Glory to Evgeniya Ivanovna Zbrueva (1913)

Academy of Russian Music Chamber Choir / Ivan Nikiforchin

Toccata Classics TOCC0614 [66’46”] Russian (Cyrilic) texts and English translations / summaries

Producer / Engineer Ilya Dontsov

Recorded 5 November – 22 December 2020 at Concert Hall of Academy of Choral Arts, Moscow

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics continues its intensive exploration of music’s (mainly) worthwhile byways with this anthology of choral music from Anatoly Lyadov (1855-1914), enticingly sung in a sympathetic ambience – with all but two of the 39 pieces featured here being first recordings.

What’s the music like?

The irony that Lyadov is today most remembered for what he did not compose (the score of Diaghilev’s ballet The Firebird, for which he might not actually have been commissioned in any case) should not detract from the sizable corpus of piano music or limited but even more distinctive output of orchestral pieces which duly confirm a miniaturist of rare fastidiousness. Such quality is hardly less apparent in his acapella choral music, most of it featured here and which falls into three distinct categories such as are helpfully presented in generic sequence.

The first three tracks represent Lyadov’s ‘Original Religious Chants’ and find the composer enriching a genre that, almost by definition, went essentially unaltered over the two centuries from Bortnyansky to Gretchaninov. If his contributions lack the expressive fervour that later exponents – notably Rachmaninov – attained, the clarity of his writing and suppleness of his phrasing evince no little mastery and make these pieces as grateful to sing as they are to hear. Sung in English, they would hardly seem out of place within the context of domestic services.

The next 22 tracks survey most of Lyadov’s ‘Arrangements of Russian Folksongs’ which fall into two main categories – choral songs that are mainly slow and introspective, with spiritual or lamentational connotations; and choral dances as are mainly swift and demonstrative, with earthly or celebratory overtones. Again, later composers – notably Stravinsky in this instance – found a new level of harmonic astringency and rhythmic flexibility in such music, which is not to deny those qualities of pathos and charm this composer draws from his arrangements.

The closing 14 tracks comprise Lyadov’s ‘Complete Original Choral Works’ which prove a motley assortment – from choruses for theatrical productions, via homages to distinguished musical personages with a commemorative (not always memorial) function, to pieces of an occasional nature. Those the composer published indicate what he felt worth disseminating, with Op. 50 belying its rather cumbersome title for music whose wistful eloquence amounts to just under four minutes of understated bliss and the undoubted highlight of this collection.

Does it all work?

Yes, in that Lyadov clearly had an innate understanding of what was required when writing for unaccompanied voices. Those who are looking for emotional expansiveness or rhythmic invention will be disappointed, though such an approach was as far removed from Lyadov’s thinking within the choral medium as in those pieces for orchestra or piano. Rather, he opts for an intimacy and poise such as are effortlessly conveyed in these stylish renderings by the Academy of Russian Music Chamber Choir under the assured direction of Ivan Nikiforchin.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The clear if atmospheric acoustic provides an ideal ambience for these performances, with insightful notes by Igor Prokhorov who also provides English summaries for each of the folksongs. Those already familiar with Lyadov’s orchestral and piano music need not hesitate.



You can discover more about this release at the Toccata Classics website, where you can also purchase the recording.