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

Elizabeth Watts, Mary Bevan (sopranos), Kitty Whatley (mezzo-soprano), Royal College of Music Brass Band (Variations), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

Vaughan Williams
Symphony no.2, ‘A London Symphony’ (1918 version)
Sound sleep (1903)
Orpheus with his lute (1901/3)
Variations (1957)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Following on from discs devoted to Elgar and Walton, Martyn Brabbins conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in this first instalment of his Vaughan Williams cycle, coupled with three relatively little-heard pieces from either end of the composer’s lengthy creative span.

What’s the music like?

Significantly, Brabbins has chosen the ‘second version’ of A London Symphony as revised in 1918 and published in 1920. Closer in its formal proportions to the streamlined 1933 revision than the expansive 1913 original, this features additional passages in the second and fourth movements, but it is the textural richness and subtlety which comes through most strongly in this account – among the most overtly alluring yet recorded. Rarely has Vaughan Williams’s later bemusement as to how he achieved such beauty of sound in this piece felt more apposite.

Beginning barely perceptibly, the opening movement unfolds from hazy evocation to one of London ‘in full swing’ and Brabbins captures such a progression unerringly – as he does that of the central interlude with its enfolding calm and opening-out of emotional space prior to a resumption of the earlier activity then a coda whose imposing rhetoric is never overbearing. Even finer is the ensuing Lento, outwardly a depiction of Bloomsbury Square one November afternoon though more pressingly a meditation on time and place which builds to climaxes of sustained expressive intensity. Brabbins gauges these superbly, then draws the extra material found in the coda into a seamless continuity of serene recollection. Rarely, moreover, have the numerous woodwind and string solos been rendered with such felicity as by the BBCSO.

A scherzo designated ‘nocturne’ might present problems of characterization and pacing, but neither is an issue here – Brabbins opting for a relaxed though never sluggish tempo such as underlines that teasing reticence to the fore in the fatalistic coda. The finale follows on with due inevitability – its heartfelt initial ‘cry’ launching a movement whose sectional unfolding feels more than usually cohesive as it takes in halting processional and forthright march on the way to a culmination where anguish and that sense of teetering on the brink are palpably conveyed. Brabbins takes his time in the ‘Epilogue’, slightly more extended than it became while evincing that steady emergence from anxiety to affirmation as brings the whole work affectingly full circle. Rarely have these closing pages conveyed so much of a benediction.

Does it all work?

Absolutely, and the fill-ups are a further enhancement. Heard in its version for three female voices, the setting of Christina Rosetti’s Sound sleep audibly anticipates Serenade to Music almost four decades hence – with Elizabeth Watts no less touching in that of Shakespeare’s Orpheus with his lute likely written for a staging of Henry VIII. Almost Vaughan Williams’s last completed work, Variations is better known as orchestrated by Gordon Jacob – though its intricately intertwined sections and final chorale are thrown into starker relief by brass band.

Is it recommended?

Indeed – not least when the sound has ideal spaciousness and definition, along with probing annotations by Robert Matthew-Walker. Fine as was Martin Yates’s recent account (Dutton), that from Brabbins is undoubtedly the recording of the ‘1920 London Symphony’ to go for.

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: Stephen Hough – Debussy: Piano Music (Hyperion)

Debussy Piano Music Stephen Hough (piano)

Debussy
Estampes (1903)
Images Set I (1905)
Images Set II (1907)
Children’s Corner (1906/8)
La plus que lente (1910)
L’isle joyeuse (1903/4)

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

This centenary-year collection from Stephen Hough takes in Debussy’s best-known suites for piano, simultaneously offering an ideal introduction to the composer’s music.

What’s the music like?

This disc is a great illustration of the strides Debussy made in piano music in the first decade of the 20th century. Starting with Estampes, Stephen Hough immediately shows the listener how the added note chords, elusive melodic figures and watery textures still create pictures of deep emotional substance. Every note counts with Debussy, and his music uses some particularly alluring chord progressions, creating pictures and moods unlike any composer of the day.

So too with both books of Images, the style further developed, while making more obvious references to the composers influential in Debussy’s development (the Hommage a Rameau for instance). The mood becomes more playful with Children’s Corner, much loved for its characterisations of infant toys. The Golliwogg’s Cake Walk is a big part of this, its winsome syncopations and catchy tune both reasons for its place as one of the composer’s best-loved pieces. It is a great example of a tricky piece made to sound simple.

Does it all work?

Very much so. Stephen Hough clearly loves these pieces; he knows just how he wants them to go, and in Children’s Corner he is not afraid to bring out the inner infant. Estampes and Images are richly coloured and commandingly played, the piano sound offering clean and precisely shaded pictures. Hough’s masterly command of the phrasing in La soirée dans Grenade is especially impressive, while Jardins sons la pluie is also brilliantly played.

The Images are lovely. Reflets d’ans l’eau melts under Hough’s soft touch, while Mouvements shows off the technical ability he has in spades, with flawless octave playing giving clarity above the whirl of notes beneath. By contrast Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut is exquisitely restrained, Hough paying particular attention to the colour realised in his slow picture painting.

The addition of short pieces La plus que lente and L’isle joyeuse offer great space and colour, the icing on the cake of this recital.

Is it recommended?

Yes. If Debussy’s piano music is new to you, let this be the way in. If it is already familiar then these interpretations will bring it to life once more, exploring the composer’s love of the dance and also his ability to create sounds and textures placing the piano in a whole new context. Buy it and be transported away.

On record: Peter Donohoe – Stravinsky: Music for Piano Solo and with orchestra (Somm Recordings)

Stravinsky Music for Piano Solo and with orchestra Peter Donohoe (piano), Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra / David Atherton (Somm Recordings)

Stravinsky
3 Movements from Petrushka (1921)
4 Études Op.7 (1908)
Piano Sonata in F sharp minor (1903-4)
Piano Sonata (1924)
Serenade in A major (1925)
Piano-Rag-Music (1919)
Tango (1940)
Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments (1923-4, rev.1950)
Movements for Piano and Orchestra (1958-9)
Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra (1929/1949)

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Stravinsky’s output for piano is, perhaps not surprisingly, overshadowed by the blockbuster ballets. Yet, as recent collections from Steven Osborne and Jean Efflam-Bavouzet have shown, there is plenty to wonder at and enjoy here. Peter Donohoe takes up the mantle and goes one step further, providing an extra disc of the composer’s music for solo piano.

What’s the music like?

Extremely varied, and often spiky, exploring the piano’s capabilities as a rhythm instrument as well as a melodic one. Some of the solo works have a relatively dry musical palette, but all have interest and the earlier ones work especially well here.

The Four Études are virtuoso pieces with their roots in the language of Romantic Russian composers such as Tchaikovsky and early Scriabin. The two Piano Sonatas are a great illustration of the difference between early and middle period Stravinsky. The first, an expansive half-hour piece in F sharp minor draws inspiration from the composer’s teacher Rimsky-Korsakov as well as the Grand Sonata of Tchaikovsky. The composer had no time for it, declaring it ‘fortunately lost’ – unaware it was under lock and key in the National Library of Russia.

The Piano Sonata of 1924, a third of its length, inhabits a different world, ‘neo-classical’ Stravinsky compressing his music into forms derived from the 18th century. The perky Serenade and the short Piano-Rag-Music and Tango make a nice, sprightly contrast to the bigger works, as do the death-defying Three Movements from Petrushka. Always a spectacular experience, these sections from the ballet faithfully reproduce the colour of the orchestra and are a technical summit that pianists cannot resist conquering.

The works for piano with orchestra are fascinating. The Concerto for Piano and Wind has a stern face and is on occasion a bit caustic – the composer contrasting ‘sounds struck and blown’ in driving rhythms. In its slow music however there is a more intimate, even vulnerable heart. Movements, a set of five postcards dating from Stravinsky’s move away from conventional tonality, remain full of interest in their syncopations, tonal movement and snapshots of humour. Finally the three-movement Capriccio is a refreshing burst of energy in its outer movements, the last movement especially turning into a riot.

Does it all work?

Yes. Peter Donohoe is an expert guide to this music, his pedigree in Russian piano music almost unrivalled among his contemporaries. Those recordings of Prokofiev, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich serve him in good stead to present a consistent and illuminating portrait of Stravinsky in his very different phases.

He is a model of clarity in the trickier contours of the more modern works, making the most of the composer’s rhythmic impetus and bringing in humour when the chance allows. In the slow movement of the Concerto he sets the mood with a calming simplicity, enjoying heartfelt dialogue with the chorales of the Hong Kong winds.

In the more overtly Romantic music he is a model of virtuoso performance. The flurry of notes in the fourth Etude are superbly delivered, while in the grand Sonata in F sharp minor Donohoe makes a compelling case for the work despite its massive structure. The shorter pieces work well too, the spiky side to Stravinsky coming to the surface.

David Atherton, also a seasoned interpreter of the composer, secures excellent playing from the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra wind in the Concerto especially, their block sounds beautifully rendered. Those sonorities are also beneficial to the Capriccio and Movements, which are suitably punchy. These are slightly older recordings, from the mid to late 1990s, but hold up extremely well.

Is it recommended?

Yes. The musical contents may not be as immediately appealing as the ballets, maybe, yet this is a collection rewarding closer inspection. Spending time with this music gives a greater insight into Stravinsky’s development as a composer, and even if you love the more Romantic side of Russian piano music the solo works bring their own rewards.

Under The Surface – Havergal Brian: Symphonies 8, 21 & 26 (Naxos)

Havergal Brian: Symphonies Nos. 8, 21 & 26 – New Russia State Symphony Orchestra / Alexander Walker

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Naxos’s Havergal Brian cycle, begun a quarter-century ago on the Marco Polo label, reaches an important milestone with a disc that features the composer’s only previously unrecorded symphony, alongside notable such works from his middle- and late- periods.

What’s the music like?

The premiere recording is that of the Twenty-Sixth Symphony, written as Brian approached his 90th birthday and among his most concentrated – for all that the overall mood is one of relative good humour. Of its three allegros, the first is a boisterous sonata design that cannily elides development and reprise, while its successor is a lively intermezzo with unexpectedly aggressive trios then a pointedly understated ending which leads directly into the finale – an off-kilter rondo whose more ambivalent episodes make possible a coda whose decisiveness is more than a little fractious. Unheard since two performances in its composer’s centenary year, the piece yields unexpected subtleties – Alexander Walker drawing a tensile response from his New Russia State Orchestra forces in this lesser while not unappealing addition to the Brian canon.

The significance of the Eighth Symphony has never been in doubt. If not the first of Brian’s one-movement such works, it is the first in which this composer grappled with the potential of symphonic continuity in earnest. Compared to Sir Charles Groves’s 1977 recording (EMI/ Warner), Walker opts for less strongly characterized individual sections in favour of greater underlying cohesion – the piece thus emerging as more than the sum of its already fascinating parts. A further plus is the definition accorded harp and piano, their contribution being crucial to the motivic evolution of music whose mystical qualities are offset by elements of sardonic humour and fraught eloquence. Nor are the enigmatic final bars undersold, though the quiet concluding dissonance as horn and trombones collide might have evinced greater presence.

By comparison, the Twenty-First Symphony tended to be heard as Brian’s marking time prior to embarking on a new and more challenging phase. This, at least, was always the feeling of Eric Pinkett’s pioneering 1972 account with the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra (Unicorn/Heritage), though such equable classicism has little place in Walker’s conception – the charged opening Allegro, its gawky introduction transformed into a surging coda, being a case in point. The Adagio emerges as one of its composer’s most searching, its increasingly wracked expression barely held in check, then the Vivace’s nimble scherzo with two livelier trios makes way for a finale whose muscular variations build inexorably toward an apotheosis the more powerful for its relative succinctness in what is an unequivocal statement of intent.

Does it all work?

Indeed. This is a major appraisal of three contrasting Brian symphonies, grippingly conveyed by an orchestra which now sounds audibly at ease with this composer’s recalcitrant idiom.

Is it recommended?

Yes, not least when the recorded sound is arguably the best yet secured from this source, and John Pickard’s booklet notes offer a wealth of informed observation. Incidentally, the Eighth Symphony has not been performed since a 1971 broadcast and never given in concert. Maybe Alexander Walker would like to take the plunge as this piece approaches its 70th anniversary?

For more information on this release, you can visit the Naxos website. For more information on the New Russia State Symphony Orchestra click here, and for the conductor Alexander Walker’s website click here

On record: Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross – The Vietnam War Soundtrack (UMC)

The Vietnam War – A Soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

Summary

You may have seen The Vietnam War, an ambitious 10-part series directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick that has aired on the BBC through Autumn and Winter. This is the first of two companion soundtracks, featuring over 90 minutes of original material composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

Its companion is also a double album, with 38 songs including heavyweights of the era from The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Simon & Garfunkel and Procol Harum.

What’s the music like?

Atmospheric and moody – but with considerable depth. Reznor and Ross write in a deceptively simple style, setting scenes through unhurried motifs and brushes of instrumental colour. Much of this colour is dark and foreboding, suggesting an underlying threat. The Forever Rain does this most vividly, suggesting the approach of an enemy vehicle.

There is an exquisite tension at play in the music, helped by the subtle use of quarter tones that can distort and pull a suggested moment of consonance in the harmony towards something more weird. Other Ways To Get To The Same Place uses these subtle variations in pitch to introduce disquiet.

There are more comforting moments – the opening Less Likely, for instance, then A World Away, where mottled piano and harp combine in an affecting loop, but by the time Justified Response arrives the tension built up throughout is released with great power. We hear cold electronic drums for the first time, then a full-on, four to the floor bluster.

Does it all work?

Yes. As background music it is extremely effective if rather disquieting, demanding more input on the part of the listener. Ross and Reznor suggest mood, emotion and peril with a surprising combination of subtlety and intensity.

Is it recommended?

Definitely. This is a cut above the average soundtrack music, and an ideal accompaniment to the visuals. The score complements the pop heavyweights elsewhere, which could hardly be bigger hitters – A Whiter Shade Of Pale, The Sound Of Silence and A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall to name just three. Get both for a full picture of the climate.