Arcana at the Proms – Prom 35: Martyn Brabbins – Enigma Variations

Idunnu Münch (mezzo-soprano), William Morgan (tenor), Nadine Benjamin (soprano), David Ireland (bass-baritone), English National Opera Chorus, BBC Singers, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins (above)

Various composers Pictured Within: Birthday Variations for M. C. B. (2019, BBC commission: world premiere)
Vaughan Williams Serenade to Music (1938)
Brahms Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny) Op.54 (1871)
Elgar Enigma Variations Op.36 (1899)

Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 13 August 2019

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
Photo credits Chris Christodoulou

You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here

It was clearly a great idea that the BBC commission a piece to mark Martyn Brabbins’s 60th birthday, this concert also being his 36th appearance at these concerts, as well as featuring 14 composers with whom this most stylistically wide-ranging of conductors has been associated.

The result was Pictured Within: Birthday Variations for M.C.B, each composer contributing a variation on an anonymous theme in what is an inverse take on Elgar’s procedure in his own Variations on an Original Theme – whose ground-plan also furnished the formal framework. Space precludes more detailed discussion, though it is worth noting the degree to which these composers (the full list is here) were inhibited or liberated by their placing in the overall scheme. And as this theme yielded its potential more from a harmonic then melodic or rhythmic angle, the most successful made a virtue of such constraints – not least Judith Weir in her engaging 10th variation and John Pickard in a finale, The Art of Beginning, whose deft mingling of portentousness with humour might yet become the springboard for an entirely new venture.

Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music (premiered in this venue – but not at these concerts – 81 years ago) was conceived for 16 solo singers and the choral alternative inevitably loses some of the original’s intimacy, though not the distinctiveness in its setting of lines drawn from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Joining the BBC Singers and members of the ENO Chorus were participants on the Harwood Young Artists programme, of whom Nadine Benjamin brought a wide-eyed wonder to the soprano solos which motivate the latter stages.

Less often heard in the UK, Brahms’s Song of Destiny is among his most ruminative choral works. Its setting of the eponymous poem by Friedrich Hölderlin might be seen as continuing from A German Requiem in its subdued fatalism, albeit with a more animated central section as hints at that starker resignation which overcame the composer in his later years. Brabbins presided over an unforced yet insightful account of a piece that, for its relative unfamiliarity, has garnered numerous distinguished admirers – among them the composer William Walton.

Closing this concert with Elgar’s Enigma Variations made for an effective symmetry as well as bringing the programme full circle. Brabbins is no stranger to the work and duly galvanized the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in a performance which gave full rein to these widely contrasted portraits (never caricatures!) of the composer’s friends while also ensuring an overall unity to the greater design – with the only lengthy pause coming after a luminous account of the ninth Nimrod variation – that carried through to a finale whose elation was shorn of any bombast. There were various delights on the way, not least a winsome take on the fifth variation, with the numerous instrumental solos eloquently taken. Hard to believe Elgar extended that final variation only at the urging of others, so inevitably does this build to its resplendent ending.

Some might have wondered whether building a full Prom around the birthday of its conductor was excessive but, given the regard in which Brabbins is held and the conviction he invested into each of these pieces, that decision was manifestly justified. Many Happy Returns M.C.B!

Martyn Brabbins has recorded Elgar’s Enigma Variations with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra for Hyperion. More details can be found on their website, or on the YouTube clip below:

On record: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins – Sir Michael Tippett: Symphonies nos. 3 & 4; Symphony in B flat (Hyperion)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sir Michael Tippett
Symphony no.3 (1970-2)
Symphony no.4 (1976-7)
Symphony in B flat major (1932-3)

Rachel Nicholls (soprano, Symphony no.3), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

Hyperion CDA68231/2 [two discs, 120’40”]

Producer Andrew Keener
Engineer Simon Eadon
Recorded 3-5 February 2018 at City Halls, Glasgow

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra follow their release of Sir Michael Tippett’s first two symphonies (reviewed here on Arcana) with his succeeding two such pieces, along with a first recording for the Symphony in B flat originally intended to be his ‘Opus 1’.

What’s the music like?

Commenced in the wake of Beethoven’s bicentenary, the Symphony no.3 is Tippett’s most ambitious in concept – its four movements falling into two parts such as interrogate without abandoning the formal archetype. Brabbins emphasizes its initial contrast between stasis and dynamism, in the process highlighting unexpected detail, though without the visceral impact of Sir Colin Davis (Decca) or Richard Hickox (Chandos). The Lento is night-music of profound inwardness tellingly realized here, albeit eschewing the ultimate intensity at the climax of the central string threnody. The scherzo that launches Part Two again predicates clarity ahead of impetus: the ensuing blues numbers – respectively soulful, capricious and plaintive – seem a little low-key, but this is no fault of Rachel Nicholls; her singing more accurate than Heather Harper (Davis) and far more insightful than Faye Robinson (Hickox) here or in that extended scena where Tippett confronts then embraces the Beethovenian tenet of compassion. Brabbins rightly ensures its final antagonism between discord and pathos is left hanging in the balance.

Although yet to regain its former eminence, the Symphony no.4 is still the most frequently heard of this cycle and here brings out the most in Brabbins’s Tippettian instincts. Expansive without becoming sluggish and considered without being turgid, it sustains the expressive arc of this single-movement design with no mean conviction – not least in the eruptive climax at its centre which forms this work’s formal and emotional fulcrum, emphasizing its centrifugal rather than centripetal trajectory (unlike Sibelius Seven, to which the present work is often if erroneously compared). Closer in its unforced momentum to Tippett’s account (NMC) than that by Georg Solti (Decca) who premiered it, Brabbins never undersells the music’s forceful persona for all that its introspective qualities are primary. One aspect of this ostensible ‘birth to death’ piece he realizes more convincingly than any predecessor is the human breathing at key moments in its progress – achieved by the subtle deployment of recent technology so the closing bars, in particular, convey an evanescing of life which the composer surely intended.

It is a fair jolt stylistically to go from here into the Symphony in B flat. This latter had at least three hearings and was several-times revised until being discarded in 1944. Received wisdom suggests a reliance on Sibelius but though its formal processes are overtly Sibelian, its sound is much less so if not yet that of Tippett. The first movement is an eventful yet gauche sonata design – its themes intensified in a fusion of development and reprise then framed by a limpid introduction that returns sombrely at the close. What follows is less a slow movement than an intermezzo in which modal and chromatic elements alternate to ambiguous effect, then a final rondo of pronounced folk inflection that builds toward an apotheosis whose hopeful optimism speaks touchingly of the ‘confidence of youth’. Brabbins finds a committed response in music where lambent harmonies and tricky if untypical rhythms go some way to offsetting any lack of melodic profile. Whatever else, the composer’s trustees were right to sanction revival of a piece that offers fascinating insight into Tippett’s creativity before it began falling into place.

Does it all work?

As on the previous release, Brabbins secures excellent playing from the BBCSSO that does not always render Tippett’s exacting rhythms with quite the clarity or impetus required. Not that this undermines too seriously the idiomatic feel of these readings, abetted by the depth and perspective of the recorded sound. At its best (during parts of the Third and most of the Fourth Symphonies), it would certainly be first choice for those coming to the pieces afresh; still, the door remains open for a Tippett cycle that gets to the heart of this inspiring music.

Is it recommended?

Yes, but for the Third Symphony seek out a live 1976 account by Raymond Leppard and the BBC Symphony, with Josephine Barstow a magisterial soprano (BBC Classics). Notes are by Oliver Soden, whose Tippett biography has recently been published (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

You can read more about this release on the Hyperion website, while for more on Sir Michael Tippett, visit the Tippett foundation. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra can be found here, while more on Martyn Brabbins can be found here

Live review – BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra: John Wilson’s Roman Festivals

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / John Wilson (above)

City Halls, London
Thursday 29 November 2018

Donizetti Overture: Don Pasquale (1843)
Puccini Capriccio sinfonico (1883)
Respighi Feste romane (Roman Festivals) (1928); Fontane di Roma (Fountains of Rome) (1915-16); Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome) (1923-4)

Written by Ben Hogwood

If ever an antidote was needed for a blustery November evening, this was it. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and their Associate Guest Conductor John Wilson began with a sprightly overture – that written by Donizetti for his opera Don Pasquale, complete with romantic solo from cellist Rudi de Groote.

We then heard Puccini’s impressive student piece Capriccio sinfonico, where the orchestra dug in to its substantial outlines and memorable triple-time dance theme.

These two pieces served as effective preludes to the main action in this all-Italian concert – Respighi’s triptych of symphonic poems inspired by the centre of his life, Rome. All too often Respighi is held up as a brilliant orchestrator lacking in musical craft, but these performances under John Wilson utterly refuted those claims. This is music of wonderful colour and texture, certainly, but there are great melodies too, scored in such a way that future composers – among them surely John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith – would surely have fallen under the Italian’s spell.

Respighi himself knew how to use his influences for good. Stravinsky looms large, as do Debussy and Ravel – but nobody else could have written the gladiatorial opening to Roman Festivals, its fire and brimstone blowing the cobwebs away from all corners of City Halls.

The BBC Scottish brass were brilliant here, with Simon Johnson’s blowsy trombone solo in Epiphany and the off-stage trumpets in Circuses both highlights. Jubilee, the second movement of the four, painted vividly the downtrodden pilgrims on the highway, rising up as they glimpsed the Holy City in a shower of glistening colour.

The duet between lead violin and cello in The October Festival (Laura Samuel and de Groote again) was a beauty, while the finale built on its influences from Stravinsky’s Petrushka with music of athleticism and raw power, where pianists Lynda Cochrane and Julia Lynch also deserve a mention, their virtuosity underpinning the sound.

Fountains Of Rome was next, sensibly placed to provide a more restrained complement to the bombastic first poem. Here the wonder lay in four beautiful depictions of water, first heard undulating through The Fountain of Valle Giulia at dawn. The Triton Fountain at mid-morning was a thrilling scherzo in this performance, while the organ (Michael Bawtree) added extra colour and splendour to The Trevi Fountain at midday. Finally the magical, twinkling image of The Fountain of the Villa Medici showed off the slightly smaller orchestra in all its glory, the strings on top form with the notably tricky figures.

Pines of Rome is the most celebrated of the triptych, and though well known its emotional impact here was considerable. The busy, blustery Pines of the Villa Borghese set a colourful scene, but Wilson paced the Pines near a catacomb to perfection, shaping the apex of the Gregorian chant to spine-tingling effect, helped once again by the brilliant BBC Scottish brass section.

Clarinetist Yann Ghiro provided a solo of exceptional control during The Pines of the Janiculum Hill, where we heard the nightingale from afar – an innovative and controversial role for the gramophone in 1924, and even now making unsuspecting audience members sit up in surprise. Yet the whole evening was still to reach its apex, The Pines of the Via Appia, with what was quite simply the loudest orchestral playing I have ever heard. This was Respighi turned up to eleven, and when it shouldn’t have been possible for the music to get any louder or bigger it just kept going.

John Wilson ensured this was always a controlled ascent and never vulgar, so as the hairs stood up on the neck once again his orchestra reached a tumultuous finish, capping a wonderful evening of music. Now that’s what I call a concert!

Further listening

This concert was recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3. John Wilson has not recorded any of the music in this concert, but you can hear a playlist of ‘Roman Festivals’:

On record: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins – Sir Michael Tippett: Symphonies nos. 1 & 2 (Hyperion)

Tippett Symphonies nos. 1 & 2 BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

Tippett
Symphony no.1 (1944-5)
Symphony no.2 (1956-7)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

A new recording of Michael Tippett’s symphonies, following on from those by Colin DavisGeorg Solti (Decca, 1968-81) and Richard Hickox (Chandos, 1992-4) was sorely needed, and with his prowess in British music Martyn Brabbins would seem well placed to provide it.

Having begun his cycle of Vaughan Williams symphonies, Brabbins now embarks on those of Tippett, whose reputation seems to be on the ascent given the inevitable decline after his death in 1998. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra may not have had a close association with this music, though the fact each of these recordings was preceded by a live performance at least ensure what is heard here are those interpretations intended by Brabbins rather than merely a run-through that comprises studio takes methodically assembled in post-production.

What’s the music like?

In the First Symphony, informed by the tragedies of war and personal loss, Brabbins handles the initial Allegro’s bracing polyphonic discourse with assurance – less unyielding than Colin Davis if not quite evincing the forward resolve of Richard Hickox. The exposition’s motivic elements are precisely individuated then vividly contrasted in the development, though there could have been greater intensity during the reprise before it reaches stasis in the coda. The Adagio is the highlight here, a passacaglia afforded focus by the expressive contrasts of its variations and cohesion by their near-symmetrical trajectory. Slower then either of his rivals, Brabbins secures greater momentum so that the sombre augmentation of the theme caps this sombre movement overall. The scherzo’s outer sections have the right rhythmic buoyancy, even if its songful trio is a little reticent, and while the twin subjects of the finale’s double-fugue are well delineated, the transition into the reprise lacks impetus; the climactic ‘stretto’ less potent than its disintegration in the coda, though this is likely what Tippett intended.

This remains a frequently impressive account, with that of the more wide-ranging Second Symphony only marginally less so. Its opening Allegro is the finest on disc – more flexible than Davis and less stolid than Hickox, while generating kinetic energy in the development and truly Beethovenian coda. If the Adagio feels less convincing, this is not through lack of insight on Brabbins’s part or finesse on that of the BBCSSO but rather a sense that the ideas in its mosaic-like construction are being juxtaposed without admitting that greater eloquence Hickox finds at a slower tempo and Tippett himself (NMC) conveys to rapturous effect. The scherzo is disappointing as, for all the wealth of detail uncovered, the underlying tempo is too staid for momentum to accrue so the climax feels less Dionysian than merely incisive. Some might also consider the finale too steady, yet Brabbins succeeds more than those before him in knitting the four parts of this fantasia-like sequence into an organic process of continuous variation through to a coda as brings the work forcefully but never overbearingly full-circle.

Does it all work?

Most of the time. As recorded in Glasgow’s City Halls, the orchestral sound has clarity and lustre well in advance of those earlier readings, even if the acerbities of Tippett’s scoring can seem a little too well-blended (the balance of trumpets in the outer movements of the Second Symphony being a case in point), hence a relatively high playback level is preferable. Oliver Soden’s annotations are informed and informative, though not free of occasional tautologies or affectations that one hopes will not feature in his forthcoming biography of the composer.

Is it recommended?

Yes. Whatever their difficulties in execution, the intrinsic musical qualities of Tippett’s symphonies cannot be doubted and this first instalment augurs well for the rest of the cycle. Nos. 3 and 4, as well as the early Symphony in B flat, are due from Hyperion later this year.

You can read more about this release on the Hyperion website, while for more on Sir Michael Tippett, visit the Tippett foundation. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra can be found here, while more on Martyn Brabbins can be found here

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.