Talking Heads: Martyn Brabbins

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

When it comes to British music, Martyn Brabbins is your man.

His current set of projects are particularly invigorating. A cycle of Vaughan Williams symphonies with the BBC Symphony Orchestra is off to a flying start, with a recording of A London Symphony on Hyperion. A cycle of the symphonies of Sir Michael Tippett with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is also underway for the same company, and will include the world premiere of the composer’s early Symphony in B flat. Then there is the small matter of English National Opera, where Brabbins is Music Director – and it’s after a stint of rehearsals and creative advice there that Arcana takes him to the pub for a well-earned drink. As you might hope for one deeply involved in English symphonies, he chooses a pale ale.

“We’ve just done the Sea Symphony!” he proclaims when the small matter of the Vaughan Williams cycle is raised. Does that mean with the first two works covered, that the nine symphonies will proceed in chronological order? “They will now,” he confirms, “we’re doing the Third (the Pastoral) and the Fourth next year. One at a time! I supposed we didn’t do the Sea Symphony first because of the chorus availability, but it doesn’t matter.”

A London Symphony (no.2) is now out on Hyperion, and has been extremely well received, not least for the extended edition used. “What I really like about it was the version we did. A real Vaughan Williams buff said to me that we should do this version. It has been recorded before, but he thought – and I agree with him now – that some of the music that Vaughan Williams put back in is absolutely fantastic.

I know the original, and even some of the music that we’ve cut out of the version we’ve done is amazing – but as a one-off performance piece that original version is a bit too long. This one is only five more minutes, but you get such pay-offs in the new music, especially at the very end of the piece and in the slow movement. The slow movement coda is absolutely ravishing. When we recorded it with the BBC Symphony Orchestra they realised it was different and they were completely convinced. I don’t remember anybody saying they preferred the original, and at the time, when we were recording in Henry Wood Hall, it felt so right because this is the orchestra for whom it was written. It is in their blood and in their spirit, possibly more than any other British orchestra.”

The orchestra has a rich recent history with VW, due to their conductor laureate Sir Andrew Davis. “He did a cycle with them,” says Brabbins, “and somehow it felt like they knew how it should go, and on a technical level they can do everything anyway. You just press the right buttons and they are so incredibly responsive, and so willing to go where you want them to go.”

Did he take their performing history into account when preparing the recording? “No, not at all. I just feel the fact they have that history means they don’t just do it how they’ve done it –they have the DNA of the music. It was like that in the Birtwistle Earth Dances, which we performed alongside the Sea Symphony at the Barbican in November. They are the only orchestra in the world that has got it in their blood. With that piece particularly it’s incredibly difficult and they have to work really hard, but in that performance it felt like they were meeting a familiar friend.”

I confess to Brabbins that I have struggled with Birtwistle at times – the Earth Dances included – due more to my own response to the music than anything else. It is however telling to witness the effect his music has on devotees such as its conductor. “It was a shattering performance, and I think anyone who was there was very positive about it”, he says. “Again the orchestra wondered why we weren’t recording it! Some of them might not like it but they take enormous pride in doing it. It’s like taking a really high, haute cuisine recipe and doing something out of the ordinary with it. It’s in every musician’s grasp but you have to grasp it. We all have those challenges in our lives I imagine, but when you’ve achieved it the rewards are so great. I think for your case it’s just repetition, listening to it more. I’ve always listened to a lot of contemporary music, and I trained as a composer, so I’ve always been interested, not in an anoraky kind of way but I’ve always found it hugely rewarding to explore music. As a professional I always want to do the best for my colleague composers. It gives me a huge sympathy for them!”

He elaborates. “When I think a composer has done their utmost to make a piece work, and they’re being practical, professional and interacting well with the musicians, when you get everything going well – like the opera I’ve been doing with Nico Muhly, Marnie – then it’s great. They’re not all like that, but I do try to pride myself on being a good intermediary between composer and orchestra. That can be very fraught, because if a composer doesn’t handle them right, you’re in deep water.”

A form of negotiation, essentially? “You have to be diplomatic but you have to be that all the time as a conductor. When there is a composer in the room there is a chance of a catastrophic outburst. I’ve witnessed players really lose their temper, and witnessed composers behave awfully – and once that happens, nobody is a winner! So I try all I can to avoid that.”

As is customary, at some point in an Arcana interview we ask our subjects to cast their mind back to their first encounters with classical music. Martyn thinks hard before taking up the story. “I remember music moving me as a child, especially when I sang it. I used to make myself feel sad singing Edelweiss from The Sound of Music. I grew up in a non-musical household, but joined a brass band at the age of eight or nine. Through that I would have got to know arrangements of classical music.”

He gives more detail on his family history. “When I think that I had a working class background, and am one of five kids, it’s pure fluke that I’m here. I’m quite proud of that, because I left school at 14. My dad and mum worked in a shop, dad became a travelling salesman, and there was no education to speak of.

My dad was a paratrooper in the Second World War, and was a prisoner of war. Looking back, he is a hero for me. He then had a tragic car crash when I was at the age of seven. I had a younger brother, an elder brother and two elder sisters, and he was in his late 40s. He never really got himself back. His kidneys failed, and he had renal dialysis for 15 years at home. Both of my parents died before I went to study conducting, in the same year. They were hugely wonderful to me, and in no way did they discourage music. Dad had a good singing voice, and I remember he had about four classical records. I used to nick them and play them very loudly in my bedroom if I could – the Karajan Verdi Requiem, Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony with Karl Böhm and SibeliusSymphony no.5 conducted by Anthony Collins. They are the records I remember at home in my teens.

I was born in Leicester, and dad heard Gigli and Caruso there. There was never any serious idea that I would become a musician though. One of my oldest sisters went to university, and I did in the end, but my other siblings are an electrician, a chef and a secretary who went to run a company. When you talk to other conductors there is probably a private education somewhere along the way, from Cambridge or Oxford. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying any of that is a bad thing – it’s wonderful! – but I never saw myself in that league. It took me a while to even think I could be a conductor because of my background, my lack of keyboard skills – and I wasn’t a chorister either. There were so many things against it but in my early 20s after graduating people said why don’t you take it seriously? That’s how it started, with a few brass bands. I played in a band but then conducted the one I had grown up in as a member. It was too far to travel to Northamptonshire and so I got a band in London, then conducted amateur choirs and orchestras. Then I went off to Russia and it all happened after that, so it was a very unorthodox route!”

Now for Brabbins it is all about giving something back, and he is equally keen to talk about this as he is his own new recordings. “I’ve just established a youth company at the ENO, the Harewood Artists Programme, and some of the youngsters are clearly from disadvantaged circumstances, but when you hear them making music and drama together I realise just how lucky I am to be here. I’m a donor to the Baylis programme here at ENO, simply because I realise that so many kids with talent are never given the chance. This has got nothing to do with CDs though! I’m president of the Salomon Orchestra, who are amateurs, and Music Director of the Huddersfield Choral Society. I’m president of the Royal Choral Union in Edinburgh, and the Towcester Choral Society where I grew up. I really care about music making for all people.”

I remark how this dedication to the community recalls tales of Vaughan Williams, and he nods vigorously. “Of course! He did amazing things, and he wrote music to speak to everyone. The Hymn Tunes on the new disc are a great example of that.”

Does he think that London now is so different from Vaughan Williams’ capital city that A London Symphony is less meaningful? “I realised this morning that I haven’t read Tono-Bungay, the H G Wells book that the piece is inspired by, so I’m going to put that right as soon as I can. I think there is still enough of a connection with the spirit of London from that period somehow. It’s a completely different city in all manner of ways, but still there is a kind of special flavour about London. You can talk to a cabbie or walk down some of the back streets, or go to some East End or South London locations, and there are certain connections. It seems to me that Londoners still have that pride in their history, so although it has changed you can still smell the same London that Vaughan Williams did – maybe not quite as smoggy! I think that is where the cover of that disc is fantastic, Simon Perry and those guys find such fantastic artwork for their discs at Hyperion.”

As the symphony cycle progresses Brabbins will inevitably arrive at the angrier wartime symphonies, the Fourth and Sixth in particular. Will he then be more mindful of his father’s role in the war? “Well Vaughan Williams was of course a driver in the First World War”, he notes, “and he went off to France. The Pastoral is influenced by his experiences in France. As for my connection, I was born in 1959, so if you think back from here that’s only 15 years after the war ended, which is incredible. You don’t think of things like that until you’re much older, but realising how close it all was is amazing. My dad was a prisoner of war, and we’ve got the telegrams from the war office saying ‘Missing In Action’. It’s incredibly touching and moving.”

“Having that family connection and experience…everything infuses how you perform, how you look at stuff. I went to Auschwitz for the first time recently, and that leaves an indelible mark on how you view things. The whole thing is so profoundly inhuman and unrepeatable, but sadly the same tragic stuff is still going on. Life is full of horrible things, and as I get older I realise my emotions in performance are much more free, and bubble over sometimes. The whole thing gets to me! I think that’s all to do with the things one goes through, your history and pre-history, and stuff that happened to you or your family. I’ve got three children and one of them has had health problems, my wife has had brain surgery previously, I lost my parents in my 20s – all those things give you a grounding in emotion somewhere, and it comes out.”

The music of Vaughan Williams will be forever close, it would seem. “I remember I was doing the Fifth Symphony on tour in China. I had to go there about 3-4 days after my father in law died, and I had to get back to see him. Because I lost my parents early he was like a father to me. We were doing Vaughan Williams’ Fifth in Beijing, and in the slow movement I just collapsed. I carried on but music has that way of speaking in a way that is unexpected, perhaps. The Fourth and Sixth as you say, there is a palpable anger there. He wouldn’t have it said that the Sixth is about the Second World War but…”

What about the striking discord in the epilogue of the London Symphony, does that have a similar quality? “Harmonically I find the whole piece very subtle, and everywhere there are places that become dissonant and then come back, bass lines that are sustained, and dissonances that come against it. I think it’s incredible music. The way he evokes place, somehow, and weather – you can almost feel the mist. The Scherzo is fantastic in this way, the Nocturne too.”

He also notes the French influence. “I think that time with Ravel was very important, and that Vaughan Williams did the right thing going to him. The orchestration, the colours and the way he subdivides the string sections – it’s amazing stuff and I’m sure that is the French influence.”

As a coupling to the London Symphony Brabbins chooses two vocal pieces, Elizabeth Watts singing Sound Sleep and Orpheus With His Lute, and then conducts the Royal College of Music Brass Band in the Variations. “The songs are very lovely, they’ve never been recorded – and there is something similar to go on the Sea Symphony disc. I have to say that for me the real thrill was doing the brass band variations, and of course now you know my background you can see that.”

“It just occurred to me that I played that piece as a boy and had never conducted it. I said to Simon Perry, how about it, and he said yes, if that’s what you want to do! I had just got this position at the Royal Northern College, and for them it’s quite a treat, for the students to prepare and record something under the conditions we did was wonderful. It’s top quality stuff, the producer Andrew Keener is a genius to work with, so educationally it was brilliant, and they get on to a successful disc, so it’s a win-win situation! For me getting that on there was great, because it takes me back to my roots.”

His own compositions have come to light at a similar time. “As an aside, James MacMillan has got a festival up in Ayrshire, and he asked me if I would conduct a brass band in the festival that’s just gone. I thought it over, and by the third beer I said yes! I hadn’t conducted a brass band for 30 years, and it was like going home. It was the Dalmellington Band, one of the top bands in Scotland, and it was so thrilling to go back and hear that sound, to feel the enthusiasm, the joy they get. It’s nice to go back to your roots.

When James asked me we came up with a few pieces – Eric Ball’s Resurgam, Herbert HowellsSuite from Pageantry, and a world premiere from Jay Capperauld and the Mendelssohn Hebrides Overture. It was alright, once I got them not to play too loudly! I also mentioned to James that in 1980-81 I wrote two very short pieces for brass band that have never been played. I ran through one and the band couldn’t play it at the time. They’ve been in my attic for 30 years, and I sent it to James and he said we’d do them! So there were two Brabbins premieres…and someone was there and they want to publish them, which is great! It was a terrific experience all round.”

Recently Brabbins has brought the music of Sir Michael Tippett back into the spotlight, and he reflects briefly on the composer. “I knew him a little, I did a few projects with him in the latter years of his life. I knew his music, and I met him quite a few times and Meirion Bowen, his partner, who was a Guardian critic – I knew him quite well. Poor Tippett disappeared once he died, apart from the obvious pieces. So a few years ago with Steven Osborne we did the Piano Concerto, and I’ve done A Child Of Our Time – we staged it with ENO and I’ve done it in concert. I’ve not done any major repertoire apart from this, so I suggested we do a Tippett Symphony cycle. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra were willing to program them, two last season and two this, and I can tell you it’s going to be good. I’ve got a copy of the first disc, and I think it’s as good as any of the other recordings. I think it will be very well received. That music is very difficult, and it needs a bit of time to get to know. The orchestra really took it to heart. We have just done the Third in concert and they really loved it. That’s quite a feat.”

“The most exciting part of the project is the ‘rediscovery’, the Symphony in B flat, which is a new discovery for me too. An academic friend alerted me to it, and we looked – and I thought we should do it! However there was a clause in his will that we had to overcome, so I asked the trustees and the Tippett Foundation, and in the end they decided on balance that it would be better for that piece to be heard, especially by people who knew Tippett. The thought being to get it out while his friends are still around! It’s a significant piece, around half an hour, and if I understand correctly it had a lot of performances, more than a handful at least. When Schott’s the publishers took him on, I think it was in the 1950s, and he decided to withdraw it. I can see what he means, but historically it is an interesting thing.”

You can hear the Symphony in B flat on the BBC iPlayer here

British music is a huge part of Brabbins’ life, and he is combining it with his work for English National Opera. “Yes, and with repertoire that has been neglected for a little too long. We’re talking about bringing back some British pieces which haven’t been done for a while. It’s a great company with an amazing history, and a wonderful orchestra and chorus. Sadly it’s had trials and tribulations in other areas, so I’m hoping we can have a period of some stability and re-establish what the company is really about, which is making great music and getting the dramas on stage, which we do well! The Barber of Seville, Aida, Rodelinda – they have had fantastic quality of voices, all of them. Marnie is really good too.”

Is there any more British orchestral music he is keen to do? “There are people around I would like to have a look at”, he says, “and not necessarily British! I’ve got scores at home of the symphonies of Gavril Popov, they’re just enormous, and there are interesting people out there. Myaskovsky I would like to do. I’ve done all the Bruch violin music, and I’d like to record the symphonies.

Over the years, for many years, I recorded what I was asked to record. Now I can say I’d like to record this, what do you think? They’re not going to say yes to a Beethoven cycle, I’d do those in concert. I should be doing stuff that other people aren’t doing and that I can do as well as anybody. I would love to do the Elgar Symphonies, all three of them, at some point. I did the First, 15 years ago, and it was a mistake. We didn’t have time, the orchestra didn’t know it and it wasn’t ideal. I’d love to do it again. It was with the Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra. They’re a fine orchestra but Elgar needs to be in your blood before you record it.”

Elgar has an increased international appeal now – but he is not the only British composer to enjoy elevated status. “I tell you where they love Vaughan Williams is Japan”, says Brabbins. “I’ve done the Antarctica and the London Symphonies, and they love it. It’s the pentatonic quality!”

Finally, what is his relationship with London in comparison to Vaughan Williams’ own? “The first time I came to London was to see Tutankhamun at the British Museum,” he recalls, “and I remember seeing someone like Houdini near the Tower of London, completely chained up. I must have been a little boy…but then I came to London to live in 1977, to go to Goldsmiths, and I lived here until 1989. I met my wife in 1977. I did 2 years as a postgraduate, she did a year, she went off to Germany to work (she’s a violinist) and she came back. We got a flat in London, in Wimbledon, in 1984, and lived there – although in 1986 I went off to Russia for two years. We decided to move out just before our first child was born. I live very near to Down Ampney, fifteen miles away in Gloucestershire. It’s a very musical county – we’ve had Howells and Holst, Elgar’s up the road, Finzi lived in Painswick, there is Vaughan Williams of course – it’s everywhere!”

You can read more about Martyn Brabbins at his website. The recordings of Vaughan Williams’ A London Symphony and Tippett’s Symphonies nos. 1 & 2 are both available now from Hyperion.

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