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

On record: Elizabeth Watts, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins – Vaughan Williams: A Pastoral Symphony & Symphony no.4

Elizabeth Watts (soprano)*, David Butt Philip (tenor)**, BBC Symphony Chorus & Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

Vaughan Williams
A Pastoral Symphony (Symphony no.3)* (1921)
Symphony no.4 in F minor** (1931-4)
Saraband, ‘Helen’ (1913-4)

Hyperion CDA68280 [80’57”]
English text included
Producer Andrew Keener
Engineer Simon Eadon

Recorded 26 & 27 November (Symphonies), 2 December 2018 (Helen), Watford Colosseum, UK

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra continue their cycle of the symphonies by Vaughan Williams with the Third and Fourth, two ostensibly very different pieces whose equally equivocal reception at their premieres now seems testament to their expressive reach.

What’s the music like?

No longer the relative rarity it once was, A Pastoral Symphony remains the most elusive of this cycle – its arcadian rapture shot-through with imagery of war and transience.

Brabbins sets a well-nigh ideal tempo for the opening movement, its deceptively passive interplay of landscape and evocation informed by eddying agitation made more explicit in its successor – whose distanced solos for horn and (offstage) trumpet afford concrete recollections of VW’s wartime experience, made the more poignant by being sensed on the edge of consciousness. For all its greater physicality, the third movement is no conventional scherzo in its eliding between moods with an agility finely conveyed here through Brabbins’s judicious pacing – not least that eerily flitting coda which forms an unerring transition to the finale. Its remote outer sections enhanced by Elizabeth Watts‘s yearning vocalise, this unfolds as a necessary culmination; the composer bringing to the fore emotions earlier half-glimpsed on the way to a powerfully wrought climax, leaving in its wake a catharsis more potent for its intangibility.

From here to the seismic eruption of the Fourth Symphony is to set forth on a very different journey, one of absolute expression in combat with force of circumstance. Brabbins keeps a firm yet flexible grip on the initial Allegro, its violent opening balanced by the fugitive calm into which it withdraws. He then finds the right ‘walking’ tempo for the Andante, this sombre if never featureless landscape underpinned by angular harmonic progressions that twice break out in ominous outbursts prior to the flute’s lamenting soliloquy towards its close. Perhaps the Scherzo’s outer sections could have evinced greater sardonic humour, though the overbearing pomposity of its trio is as finely judged as is the pulsating transition into the finale. Brabbins duly brings out its martial swagger and if tension during the earlier stages could be even more acute, the ghostly throwback at its centre yields a wan rapture and how persuasively he draws the thematic elements together in the epilogo fugato for a stretto of mounting tension whose denouement is a return to the work’s fateful opening gesture and a four-letter clinching chord.

As makeweight, Saraband ‘Helen’ proves an enticing discovery. Left unfinished towards the outbreak of the First World War, this setting of lines from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus may be off-balance in its utilizing tenor and chorus for what surely needed to become a larger entity, though both David Butt Philip and the BBC Symphony Chorus acquit themselves ably, while Brabbins secures playing of real elegance and finesse in orchestral writing that inadvertently yields what emerged as the main theme of Serenade to Music almost a quarter-century later.

Does it all work?

Almost entirely. Those who have acquired the earlier releases in this series (A Sea Symphony and A London Symphony) will be aware of the qualities which Brabbins brings to VW, and so it proves here with what is among the finest recent accounts of the Pastoral. Others have evinced a more visceral response in the Fourth, but there is no lack of impact – allied to a methodical sense of purpose that pays dividends in those densely contrapuntal passages over which the composer laboured before ultimately getting them right.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Sound has the sense of perspective but also immediacy necessary in this music, with Robert Matthew-Walker once again contributing a detailed and informative note. Hopefully the next instalment, featuring the Fifth (and Sixth?) Symphony, will 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

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Roisin Brophy on the BBC SO concert of Elgar, Vaughan Williams & Hugh Wood

For the latest in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series Roisin Brophy (above) gives her thoughts on the BBC Symphony Orchestra and their Prom of English music under Sir Andrew Davis.

Prom 53: Stacey Tappan (soprano) Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Anthony Gregory (tenor), BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis

Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910)
Hugh Wood Scenes from Comus (1965)
Elgar The Music Makers Op.69 (1912)

Royal Albert Hall, Thursday 29 August 2019

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

ARCANA: Roisin, how would you describe your musical upbringing?

I am from a very heavily Irish catholic family. I grew up on a lot of Irish folk music, and my mum is quite a hippy at heart. My god parents are also hippies at heart, and so I grew up with a lot of Cat Stevens and Joni Mitchell. My mum’s got really good taste in music, so I grew up always loving Led Zeppelin and they continue to be my favourite band.

My dad is quite a musical person, he plays guitar and sings, and therefore I think I was very influenced into doing folk music as a child, and also being a catholic and going to catholic school, and going to church – where I heard choral music. I sang in a choir for our local church, and I stopped when I was about 15 or 16.

I got into drum and bass completely by accident. I don’t even listen to drum and bass! I know a lot of it but because I happen to work in it. I was just picked up by a dubstep producer years ago, and got into drum and bass from that. Folk is my most natural style of music, although I don’t write it professionally.

Could you name three musical acts you love, and why you love them?

Joni Mitchell (above) – (a) because I grew up on her music, (b) because I think her vocal range and songwriting ability is unreachable by anybody else.

Led Zeppelin (above) Again the vocal range and the guitar and drum skills, for me, and their heavy influence from blues music, which you can really hear going into pop music.

My third would have to be Dolly Parton (above), because she’s a sassy lady, her songs are insanely catchy and again her voice is like no other.

What has been your experience of classical music so far?

I’ve always studied music, and did GCSE and ‘A’ level before studying popular music at university. I’ve always been around people that have been involved in classical music but not been involved personally, as I have always been on the popular or folk side of things. Going to Goldsmiths, which is very renowned for being a classical music education system, I had a lot of friends that were classical musicians and opera singers.

I’ve always loved classical music, and studying it you learn what you like and what you don’t like. I still listen to it most days, it’s more of a morning thing for me. I like piano-based stuff. Vladimir’s Blues by Max Richter is a good example.

How did you rate your first Proms experience?

I absolutely loved it, and I’m actually a bit blown away by how much I did love it. The second half was definitely a lot more emotive than the first, but I think that was because of how the piece (Elgar’s The Music Makers) moved. The crescendos were incredibly moving and the sound in general was such a massive sound with the choir, females on one side and male on the other, a huge orchestra and the percussion in the second piece.

I think it made me appreciate that it was not a piece of classical music I would necessarily listen to on headphones, but now that I’ve seen it live and understand the musicianship behind it, I would very much want to listen to it again as a recording.

What did you think of the Vaughan Williams?

I have a feeling I recognised it. I felt it was light, soft, warming, and dreamy. It was nice to listen to live and I have never seen classical music to that standard live before, so when that piece first opened and the string players were playing it together, how crisp and clear and on point it was! It almost sounded like it was recorded, it was so perfect.

What did you think of the Hugh Wood?

It definitely told the story and was creepy at times. It felt like it was for that purpose, and the emotions that it conveyed was exactly what it was meant to do. It was eerie and scary, and seeing the singers battle against the orchestra with no microphones was pretty amazing. I loved it.

But the Elgar was the one you love the most?

Yes, for sure. It was just a lot more emotive and there was more behind it. The sheer size of it you could tell not only how much went into the writing of it, but I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to write for that many musicians and to think about that many parts working together, and for it to come out that perfect. Add to that the hard work and musicianship and understanding the commands of the music itself was amazing.

What did you like about the Proms?

The venue is amazing, a beautiful place to be, and it’s worth a visit on its own regardless of whether there is a concert or not. Going to see classical music you’ve never seen or heard before, for me it opened my ears to listening to classical music I would never necessarily listen to at the moment. Now I’ve seen these pieces live I could now appreciate listening to a recording.

What might you improve about the experience?

I don’t want to change it, because it was as it’s supposed to be. I think because I’m used to going to watch music that requires amplification, seeing music that doesn’t require amplification that is never going to be as loud so you have to wear earplugs as it’s so bloody loud, so maybe I would change the loudness of the sound. But it has a meaning, and that’s the whole point.

Would you go again?

Yes, definitely.

Verdict: SUCCESS

You can listen to the Elgar piece The Music Makers below in this recent release from Dame Sarah Connolly and the BBC Symphony Chorus & Orchestra with Sir Andrew Davis:

Arcana at the Proms – Prom 53: Sir Andrew Davis conducts Vaughan Williams, Hugh Wood and Elgar’s The Music Makers & Huw Watkins

Prom 53: Stacey Tappan (soprano) Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Anthony Gregory (tenor), BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis

Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910)
Hugh Wood Scenes from Comus (1965)
Elgar The Music Makers Op.69 (1912)

Royal Albert Hall, Thursday 29 August 2019

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood
Photo credits Chris Christodoulou

You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here

A knight of the realm and a dame performing Elgar. It doesn’t get much more English than that! Yet on this humid night in the Royal Albert Hall the continental aspects of the music chosen were just as evident, Sir Andrew Davis securing a trio of very fine performances from the assembled forces.

To begin, the solemn but radiant strains of Vaughan WilliamsFantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, written in the wake of his studies with Ravel in France. That opening chord never fails to transport the listener to another place, and Davis has more experience with it than most. The BBC Symphony Orchestra strings responded as one, their unity as evident in the swelling of the music as it was when the parts were divided. The four soloists at the front – violinists Igor Yuzefovich and Dawn Beazley, viola player Norbert Blume and cellist Susan Monks played beautifully, as did the group of nine instruments on a raised platform at the back of the stage. With these judicious placements Davis ensured the balance of the music – both audibly and emotionally – was firmly aligned.

Hugh Wood’s Scenes from Comus approach Englishness from a very different perspective – that of the Second Viennese School, headed by Schoenberg. Notorious for its rejection of tonality, the school was an incredibly innovative part of 20th century classical music, and Wood was one of several English composers to fall under its spell. Often the accusation is that music without tonality lacks emotion, but Wood refutes that emphatically.

Scenes from Comus may not have an obvious key centre but it treats its story in a powerfully expressive way. The orchestra told the story with strongly rendered colours, with particularly fine playing from principal horn Martin Owen with the opening theme. Soloists Stacey Tappan and Anthony Gregory (both above) found an ideal balance with the orchestra, and the story – where an Attendant Lady, lost in a ‘wilde wood’, is kidnapped by Comus – came to life. The 87 year-old Wood was present in the audience, waving cheerily at Sir Andrew Davis in acknowledgement of an excellent performance of his piece, performed for the first time at the Proms in 1965.

Elgar’s The Music Makers, a setting of Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s Ode, has tended to fall short of critical acclaim, which is unfortunate as it contains some very fine music. In it the composer recycles some of his greatest melodies, quoting and redressing them in the manner of a greatest hits compilation. If anything that approach, when complemented by new musical ideas, makes the piece even more personal, speaking to us of his own favourite moments in music while wrought with worry about the onset of later life and the prospect of war.

The memorable opening line, ‘We are the music makers and we are the dreamers of dreams’, was magical in the hands of the BBC Symphony Chorus, subdued but wonderfully clear as they are in a recent recording made with Sir Andrew Davis for Chandos.

Also on the recording is Dame Sarah Connolly, and her first notes in this particular concert (‘they had no vision amazing of the goodly house they are raising’) sent a shiver down the spine, sung with raw emotion and urgency. She was a dominant figure from her on, passionate yet fully in control of her phrasing, responding forcefully to O’Shaughnessy’s text.

Elgar’s liberal quotations enhanced the music, none of the melodies present for the sake of it, and each reimagined with O’Shaughnessy’s text. The melodies from the Enigma Variations, the Symphony no.1, the Violin Concerto and, most tellingly, The Dream of Gerontius, all contributed to a reading of really impressive gravity and poise. The BBC Symphony Chorus sang with great unity of purpose, aided by sensitive accompaniment from the orchestra and their heartfelt account of the winsome melodies. Sir Andrew Davis is a master Elgarian, and here his credentials were handsomely reinforced.

You can listen to the new recording by these forces of The Music Makers on Spotify below:

On record – BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo: Sibelius: Lemminkäinen Suite (Chandos)

BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

Sibelius
Lemminkäinen Suite Op.22 (1893-6, rev. 1897/1900/1939)
Spring Song Op.16 (1894, rev. 1895)
Belshazzar’s Feast: Suite Op.51 (1906-07)

Chandos CHAN20136 [71’34”]

Producer Ann McKay
Engineers Neil Pemberton and Rob Winter

Recorded 22-23 May 2018 at the Colosseum, Watford

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Sakari Oramo extends his discography with this recording of Sibelius’s Lemminkäinen Suite in partnership with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (whose chief conductor he has been these past five seasons), coupled with two rarities among the composer’s shorter orchestral pieces.

What’s the music like?

Emerging from an abandoned opera, the Lemminkäinen Suite followed Kullervo as Sibelius’s second major symphonic work before his actual First Symphony. It only reached its definitive guise over a decade after the composer’s last notable piece, was unpublished until three years before his death and remains on the edge of the repertoire. Opting for the order of movements at its 1896 premiere, Oramo draws a vibrant response in Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island with its heady alternation between energy and ecstasy – underlining its emotional rhetoric without undue histrionics. Sibelius’s masterpiece from this period, Lemminkäinen in Tuonela is more focussed in form and expression – Oramo pointing up the contrast between its stark depiction of the underworld with the premonitions of the hero’s mother at its centre.

Closing with the two shorter movements risks selling short this suite’s overall trajectory, but Oramo ensures their continuity through his searching take on The Swan of Tuonela (soulful cor anglais playing from Alison Teale) such as forms a potent contrast with Lemminkäinen’s Homeward Journey in which the hero marks his being restored to life with a hectic return to the human world. Others have favoured a more headlong approach, but Oramo’s building of cumulative anticipation makes for tangible excitement on the way to a resolute conclusion.

As to the other pieces here, Spring Song was once among Sibelius’s most performed pieces but long ago fell from grace. As Oramo hears it, what can feel a rather half-hearted re-run of Grieg or Svendsen assumes darker and more equivocal shades prior to its hymnic apotheosis – even if the coda still sounds perfunctory. A suite drawn from incidental music for Hjalmar Procopé’s Belshazzar’s Feast has had advocates (such as the late Gennady Rozhdestvensky) and deserves more frequent revivals. Oramo brings out the ominous undertow of Oriental Procession, as also the musing pathos of Solitude (with its wistful interplay of viola and cello) then the evocative arabesques of Nocturne, before rounding off this sequence with the ingratiating poise of Khadra’s Dance – evidently a direct descendant of that by Anitra.

Does it all work?

Yes. Oramo established himself in the UK through his probing cycle of Sibelius symphonies when music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and this account of the Lemminkäinen Suite completes his traversal of the larger symphonic works (his 2015 Proms reading of Kullervo can be found as a covermount disc on BBC Music Magazine, Volume 25 no.12) in fine style. The recorded sound has all the requisite depth and perspective necessary for this music, and there are typically informative booklet notes courtesy of Anthony Burton.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The discography for each of these pieces is now considerable but, for its interpretive insight, committed playing and impressive sound, this release gets a strong recommendation. Hopefully Oramo and the BBCSO will soon follow it up with a disc of Sibelius’s tone poems.

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You can buy this release directly from the Chandos website