On record: BBC Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins – Vaughan Williams: Symphony no.5 & Scenes adapted from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress

*Emily Portman (singer); *Kitty Whatley (mezzo-soprano); *Marcus Farnsworth (baritone), *BBC Singers; *BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

Vaughan Williams
Symphony no.5 in D major (1938-43)
Scenes adapted from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1906)*

Hyperion CDA68325 [66’59”]
English text included
Producer Andrew Keener
Engineer Simon Eadon

Recorded 2 December 2018* & 4-5 November 2019 (Symphony 5), Watford Colosseum, UK

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Martyn Brabbins’s traversal of Vaughan Williams symphonies continues with the Fifth, long the most widely regarded of this cycle, alongside music written for a dramatized production which effectively launched the composer’s lifelong obsession with John Bunyan’s ‘allegory’.

What’s the music like?

Premiered in June 1943, the Fifth Symphony poses a challenge or even provocation through that inwardness all too easily regarded as escapism. A ‘less is more’ concept which Brabbins clearly appreciates – not least in a Preludio as builds incrementally, with little overt rapture going into the radiant second theme or a development understatedly accruing energy, toward a reprise whose climactic restatement of the second theme is (purposely?) less arresting than a coda in which any tonal ambiguity feels the more real for happening almost out of earshot. Easy to skate over, the Scherzo emerges with not a little malevolence in the deftness of its cross-rhythms – the chorale-like aspect of its trio questioning rather than affirming, then the return of the opening music exuding a sardonic quality left unresolved by the spectral close.

That the Romanza is the emotional heart of this work only increases a need for its contrast of moods to be (subtly) underlined. Brabbins achieves exactly so through an adroit interplay of the melodic and harmonic components whose cumulative yet unforced evolution accords the central phase of the movement an encroaching anxiety barely pacified at its culmination, before being more wholly transcended by a coda that is luminous in its simplicity and poise. Often thought unsatisfactory as a formal design, the final Passacaglia seems of a piece with what went before; its theme stated simply while purposefully before the variations build to a resolute central climax – after which, those conflicting elements of negation and affirmation are sublimated into a postlude which reaches out as though at once entreaty and benediction.

As a coupling, Scenes adapted from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress could not be more apposite. Written for a staging at Reigate Priory, the 13 short items unfold well as a continual sequence at the outset of an involvement with Bunyan’s novel that resulted in an evening-length drama 45 years on. Highlights are Emily Portman’s disarming take on the ‘Flower-girl’s song’, ‘The angel’s song’ eloquently rendered by Kitty Whately (her contribution an undoubted highpoint of ENO’s uneven 2012 production), Marcus Farnsworth’s fervour in a setting of Psalm 23 as constitutes the Shepherd’s Song, and lusty response from the BBC Symphony Chorus in The arming of Christian (best known as the hymn To be a Pilgrim) then a rapturous Final scene music which also serves as reminder that VW’s Tallis Fantasia was merely four years hence.

Does it all work?

It does. Brabbins’s Fifth may not be the most fervent or powerful but has the work’s measure as a cohesive and integrated entity. The Pilgrim’s Progress ‘Scenes’ makes for a fascinating comparison with subsequent versions in VW’s decades-long quest for a satisfying realization.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound is on a par with previous instalments in its clarity and realism, and Robert Matthew-Walker’s booklet note expertly clears up any uncertainty over the genesis of VW’s Bunyan-related projects. Those remaining symphonies will hopefully not be long in coming.

For further information on this release, visit the Hyperion website, or the BBC Symphony Orchestra. You can also read Arcana’s interview with the conductor here

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