On record: BBC Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins – Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony (Hyperion)

Elizabeth Llewellyn (soprano), Marcus Farnsworth (baritone), BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

Vaughan Williams
A Sea Symphony (Symphony no.1 in B flat minor) (1903-09)
Darest thou now, O soul (1925)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Following his impressive take on A London Symphony (given in the 1918 version), Martyn Brabbins here continues his Vaughan Williams cycle with its predecessor A Sea Symphony, coupled with a choral setting which reinforces the composer’s adherence to Walt Whitman.

What’s the music like?

Now that most of the numerous orchestral pieces Vaughan Williams wrote at the turn of the 20th century have been recorded, the context for the present work is far clearer than hitherto. Yet it still took six years before A Sea Symphony was completed; during which time, both its actual concept and his musical aesthetic underwent radical change. The premiere in Leeds on 12th October 1910 may have overshadowed by that of the Tallis Fantasia just a month before, but the larger work likewise confirmed VW’s arrival as a leading composer of his generation.

While not an overly long work (lasting around 67 minutes), A Sea Symphony feels expansive as compared to Vaughan Williams’s later such works and benefits from a formally focussed approach. This it receives from Brabbins, who controls the first movement securely from its magisterial opening, through its eventful if prolix ‘development’ then on to a rapt conclusion. The ensuing nocturne is less problematic and Brabbins duly points up the contrast between its fervent climax and pensive introspection on either side. He secures a rousing response in the scherzo, with its unabashed echoes of Elgar and Parry, then steers a convincing course across the expansive finale – whether in its cumulative earlier stages, its eloquent central vocal duet or the closing stages with their stark juxtaposing of bracing peroration and ethereal postlude.

Throughout this recording, the playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra is responsive and committed, while the singing of the BBC Symphony Chorus leaves nothing to be desired in terms of tonal finesse and rhythmic articulation. The two soloists are less consistent. Marcus Farnsworth lacks presence during the combative baritone contribution to the first movement, though his stoic musing in its successor is far more persuasive. A soprano with the requisite mezzo range, Elisabeth Llewellyn yet evinces a vibrato in her higher register that can prove distracting, but this is less of a problem in the finale – she and Farnsworth exuding warmth and ardency in its lyrical central duet, while bringing poise without indulgence towards its close as vocal phrases stretch out in parallel to the expanse of that ‘journey’ being evoked.

Does it all work?

Yes, notwithstanding those reservations noted above. Brabbins adopts a firm though flexible approach which is demonstrably in the lineage of Sir Adrian Boult and Vernon Handley. Both orchestral playing and choral singing are first rate (in advance of that for Andrew Davis in the BBC’s first VW cycle a quarter-century ago), and there is once again an enterprising coupling. Darest though now, O soul finds Vaughan Williams briefly revisiting a Whitman text he set 18 years before in Toward the Unknown Region, reduced to a hymnal setting for unison chorus and strings.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound finds an ideal balance between spaciousness and definition, with probing notes by Robert Matthew-Walker. If Brabbins’s Sea Symphony is slightly less fine than his London Symphony, it is a consistent follow-up in what looks set to be impressive VW cycle.

For further information on this release, visit the Hyperion website, or the BBC Symphony Orchestra. You can also read more about Martyn Brabbins here

On record: Vassilis Varvaresos – V for Valse (Aparté)

V for Valse

Vassilis Varvaresos (piano)

Liszt Allegro spiritoso in A major S427/7 (1852), Mephisto Waltz no.1 S514 (1862)
Ravel La Valse (1920)
Rosenthal Carnaval de Vienne (1889)
Schumann Faschingsschwank aus Wien Op.26 (1838)
Scriabin Waltz in A flat major Op.38 (1903)
Tchaikovsky Valse sentimentale Op.51/6 (1882)

Aparté AP172 [61’31”]

Producer / Engineer Pierre Fenouillat
Recorded 22 & 24 July 2017 by Little Tribeca at Hotel de l’Industrie, Paris

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The first recital disc from Greek pianist Vassilis Varvaresos, winner at the 2016 Enescu Competition, and already heard on Schubert’s Winterreise with Dimitris Tiliakos as well as works for violin and piano by Schumann and Richard Strauss with Noe Inui (both on Navis Classics).

What’s the music like?

In an interesting conceptual ploy, the Valse (Waltz) has been taken as basis for an overview of almost a century’s piano music – during the course of which, keyboard virtuosity veered away from uninhibited display to reinforcing the emotional complexity of the piece at hand.

Varvaresos starts his recital in media res with Liszt‘s First Mephisto Waltz – the touchstone for a virtuosity fused with psychological complexity, rendered here with a combination of technical brilliance and emotional understatement as extends right to the scintillating final bars. The seventh from his Soirées de Vienne, a set of Valses-Caprices after Schubert, finds Liszt in more equable if hardly less resourceful mood, not least in the way he channels his borrowed ideas into a study as subtle formally as it is poetic and affectionate expressively.

A further highlight is Faschingsschwank aus Wien, last of Schumann’s piano cycles from his first full decade of creativity and one which tends to be overlooked in the context of several more innovative predecessors. Its outer movements can run the risk of mindless display, but this is never an issue for Varvaresos, who leavens their boisterousness with almost Classical objectivity. This applies equally to the three central movements, not least a Romanza whose poise and inwardness uncannily anticipate the piano miniatures of its composer’s last years.

Tchaikovsky‘s piano output remains relatively neglected, so it was astute of Varvaresos to include his Valse sentimentale, last in a set of six pieces which point up his indebtedness in this medium to earlier models (notably Schumann), yet whose melodic eloquence is wholly characteristic. Scriabin‘s Waltz in A flat makes for a telling foil, its melody line diffused into a harmonic radiance which blurs the expected tonal focus with teasing playfulness. Here, as throughout this programme, the suppleness of Varvaresos’s pedalling is of the highest order.

Discretion is hardly to be expected of an archetypal virtuoso such as Maurice Rosenthal, yet his Carnaval de Vienne is a riotous humoresque on themes by Johann Strauss II that makes a fittingly uproarious encore (as Varvaresos demonstrated at last year’s Enescu Festival). The virtuosity of Ravel’s La Valse is of an altogether more speculative manner, but this account makes a virtue of such ambiguity as this plays out across a structure audacious in its formal design and unnerving in its emotional follow-through – not least those fateful closing pages.

Does it all work?

Very much so. Varvaresos is evidently among a younger generation of pianists for whom virtuosity is neither to be played up to nor fought shy of; but rather placed at the service of the music in question so its salient qualities can more fully be appreciated and savoured.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound is ideal in its realism and immediacy, with Jean-Yves Clement’s fanciful note complemented by a photo which looks rather like a still from an Alain Resnais film. An auspicious release by a pianist from whom much can be expected. V for Varvaresos indeed!

You can read more about this release on the Aparté website, or get more information on Vassilis at his website The full album can be heard on the Spotify playlist below:

On record: Clare Hammond – Robert Saxton: Piano Music (Toccata Classics)

Saxton Piano Music

Clare Hammond

Saxton
Hortus Musicae, Books One (2013) and Two (2015)
Chacony for the Left Hand (1988)
Sonata (1981)
Lullaby for Rosa (2016)

Toccata Classics TOCC0458 [55’44”]

Producer / EngineerMichael Ponder
Recorded21 & 22 August 2017 at the Church of St John the Evangelist, Oxford

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

A disc collating most of the solo piano output by Robert Saxton (b1953) in performances by Clare Hammond, who has championed his work over recent years and is the dedicatee of two books of shorter pieces comprising Saxton’s most significant music for this instrument so far.

What’s the music like?

Saxton came of age as a composer during the early 1980s, with such pieces as the Sonata for Piano. This was completed in 1981, the centenary of Bartók’s birth and the pivoting of whose mature piano music between stasis and dynamism is evident in the present work’s methodical unfolding towards a coruscating climax; rounded off by a limpid if by no means valedictory chorale. Hammond has the measure of this compact yet eventful piece, not least its unforced and resourceful tonal follow-through as subsequently became a hallmark of Saxton’s thinking.

Such is audible in the Chacony for Piano Left Hand composed in 1988 for Leon Fleischer. Its antecedents in archetypal examples by Purcell and Bach are never hard to detect, but Saxton ‘personalizes’ this form through a tonal framework that facilitates its evolution as a sequence of interrelated variations – as defined harmonically as it is seamless texturally. Concerning the latter aspect, Saxton notes that he was at pains to ensure his music sounded as though written for two hands – a quality that is audibly to the fore in Hammond’s admirably fluent reading.

Both these pieces have been previously recorded, but the two volumes of Hortus Musicae are new to disc and evince piano writing no less idiomatic and arguably more personal than before. The inspiration is that of a ‘musical garden’ in all its allegorical and metaphysical implications, with the five pieces which comprise the First Book (2013) embodying this in ingenious ways – not least the stealthy (Andrew Marvell-inspired) floral clock of Hortus Temporis, or synthesis of formal precision and expressive eloquence in Hortus Infinitatis.

The seven pieces of the Second Book (2015) are even more diverse and contrasted in and between themselves. Here, too, the inspiration is often more concrete – hence the invoking of fondly remembered music in Beech Bank (á la recherche)…, or deft play on meanings which motivates the heady course of Hortus Animae Alis Fugacis; a concluding piece in every sense. The fact these 12 pieces outline a circular tonal trajectory makes further books unlikely, but Saxton will hopefully find a means of extending the sequence up to 24 pieces.

Does it all work?

Indeed. Saxton has long been a composer able to fuse serial and tonal elements without the results seeming at all contrived or inhibited. The two books of Hortus Musicae abound in evocative and arresting musical imagery which Hammond conveys as convincingly as she realizes the not inconsiderable technical challenges. The disc is rounded off by Lullaby for Rosa (2016), a minute-long ‘welcome gift’ for this pianist’s daughter and a further instance of how deftly Saxton integrates technical ingenuity within a context of limpid wistfulness.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. The piano sound is spacious in balance as well as realistic in tone, while the composer contributes an entertaining booklet note that takes in an overview of his ancestry and formative years. Hopefully there will be further releases of his music from this source.

You can read more about this release and listen to clips on the Toccata Classics website, or listen in full on Spotify below:

On record: Málaga Philharmonic Orchestra / Paul Mann – Rodney Newton: Orchestral Music Vol.1 (Toccata)

Newton Orchestral Music, Volume One – Symphony no.1; Symphony no.4 ‘Distant Nebulae’

Málaga Philharmonic Orchestra / Paul Mann

Newton
Symphony no.1 (1969)
Symphony no.4 (1975)
Distant Nebulae (1979)

Toccata Classics TOCC0459 [70’29”]

Producer/Engineer Albert Moraleda
Recorded September 18-22 at Sala Beethoven, Sala de Ensayos de Carranque, Málaga

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The ever-enterprising Toccata Classics begins another series, devoted to the orchestral output of Rodney Newton (b1945) who, best known for his brass band and film music, has been no less active in the concert domain, with 14 symphonies to date and numerous other pieces.

What’s the music like?

We begin at the start of this symphonic output, with the Symphony no.1 that Newton completed in 1969. He suggests Shostakovich and Vaughan Williams as primary influences, though that of Malcolm Arnold (then the leading British symphonist of the younger generation) is also detectable in the livelier episodes of the opening movement and a finale alternating between jazzy incisiveness and high-flown eloquence. Best, though, is the central Lento – its serenity increasingly undermined by more troubled elements on the way to a radiant close. Had this symphony appeared a decade or so before, it might well have found favour at a Cheltenham Festival of the period; heard today, its wide-eyed naivety – in terms of expression while not technique – appears more a resolute statement of intent for where its composer was headed.

One instance is the Symphony no.4 of 1975, its more forward-looking idiom underpinned by an adept recourse to serial technique and a continuous variation at its most resourceful in the opening Metamorphosis whose seamless and cumulative momentum readily confirms   a symphonist of conviction. There follows an Elegy of overt if not unrelieved sombreness, then a Scherzo malevolo dominated by suitably strident material and climaxing in a ‘break’ for kit-percussion such as leads into the finale. This Passacaglia, Variations and Epilogue builds stealthily, with increasing allusions to earlier ideas, to a powerful culmination whose impact resonates throughout the raptly inward concluding bars. Had Sir Charles Groves been able to secure its premiere, Newton’s symphonic profile would surely have been far greater.

The disc is rounded off by Distant Nebulae (1979), which received two semi-professional performances before this recording. Although inspired by the ‘cosmic landscape’ of Ives’s The Unanswered Question, its interplay of chorale-like melody and modal harmony suggests more Copland and even Barber; the music evoking that ‘’gentle meditation on the night sky and the mysteries of the universe’’, of which the composer speaks, in suitably pensive terms. Just maybe this could be Newton’s means of finding favour with a non-specialist audience?

Does it all work?

Very largely. That the First Symphony is a ‘starting out’ piece does not lesson its undoubted appeal, and it clearly commended itself to the Málaga Philharmonic players who render it with relish. The Fourth presents tougher challenges which are not entirely surmounted here (notably in the extensive outer movements), but this is not to question the commitment of these musicians – presided over by the dependable Paul Mann, whose service to present-day British symphonism (at least as represented by Toccata Classics!) could hardly be gainsaid.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound is spacious and well-focussed (if just a touch overbearing at climaxes), while Newton contributes an informative and personable booklet note. As with Steve Elcock and Matthew Taylor, one looks forward to further symphonic odysseys from this source.

You can read more about this release and listen to clips on the Toccata Classics website, or listen in full on Spotify below:

On record: Norrköping Symphony Orchestra / Christian Lindberg – Pettersson: Symphonies 5 & 7 (BIS)

Pettersson Symphonies nos.5 and 7

Norrköping Symphony Orchestra / Christian Lindberg

Pettersson
Symphony no.5 (1960-62)
Symphony no.7 (1966-67)*

BIS 2240 [82’48”]

Producers Martin Nagorni and *Hans Kipfer
Engineers Jeffrey Ginn and *Stephan Reh
Recorded *January and June and 2017 at Louis de Geer Concert Hall, Norrköping

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

BIS’s cycle of the Allan Pettersson symphonies, by the Norrköping Symphony and Christian Lindberg, nears completion with this coupling of the Fifth and Seventh – two works of almost equal duration, though wholly different in terms of formal continuity and expressive content.

What’s the music like?

The Fifth Symphony occupies a pivotal role in Pettersson’s output. Whereas its air of ominous detachment recalls that of its two predecessors, the music’s unfolding as lengthy episodes of relative stasis and dynamism more directly resembles the symphonies of the 1960s on which this composer’s wider reputation still rests. Lindberg assuredly has the measure of its opening paragraph, with its sombrely fateful manner, then invests what is a discursive though highly focussed process of exposition, development and reprise with cumulative momentum through to an extended coda where the initial mood is revisited from an audibly more restive vantage. Easy to underestimate within context, the Fifth has latterly emerged among the most finely achieved of Pettersson’s symphonic cycle and this recording accordingly does it full justice.

Much more so than BIS’s earlier recording, Moshe Atzmon directing the Malmö Symphony in a cohesive though emotionally underpowered reading, whose playing and recording are no match for this newcomer. Understandable BIS should have re-recorded it, but less expected is this new account of the Seventh, which the Norrköping SO has previously tackled with Leif Segerstam. Powerfully propelled during its earlier stages, this nevertheless yields to Lindberg in the formal control such as the latter brings to the overtly sectional stages of its latter half.

Half a century on from its premiere and the Seventh Symphony remains the best known of Pettersson’s cycle (though it seems never to have received a public performance in the UK). This is essentially a work of two halves and Lindberg brings palpable impetus to its former half, building remorselessly over a baleful trombone motif to a seismic climax from where the music retreats in stark defeat. If what ensues is too episodic to sustain a true symphonic trajectory, this latter half features a sustained threnody and wistful coda which are among this composer’s most affecting utterances and the Norrköping players leave nothing to be desired. What a pity that, having brought this piece to Vienna’s Musikverein, orchestra and conductor were not able to have taken it on to London, where it would surely have been well received.

Does it all work?

Indeed, not given the persuasiveness of these accounts. The BIS recordings are comfortably surpassed, and though Alun Francis (with the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony) offers a more demonstrative take on the Fifth, while Gerd Albrecht (with the Hamburg Philharmonic State – both on CPO) more assiduously underlines those emotional peaks of the Seventh, both the greater refinement of the playing and definition of the SACD sound tips the scales in favour of this new disc. As a way into Pettersson’s symphonic cycle, it could scarcely be bettered.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. Annotations (once again courtesy of Per-Henning Olsson) are succinct and informative, and this series only lacks the choral Twelfth Symphony to reach completion – though before that, the symphonically conceived Second Violin Concerto is due for release.

You can read more about this release and listen to clips on the BIS website, or listen in full on Spotify below: