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

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 Penswick, 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.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, BBC SO / Sakari Oramo – Schmitt, Franck, Ravel & Sibelius Symphony no.3

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (above)

Barbican Hall, London; Friday 27 October 2017

Schmitt Symphony No.2 in E flat major, Op.137 (1957)

Franck Variations symphoniques (1885)

Ravel Piano Concerto in D ‘for the Left Hand’ (1930)

Sibelius Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op.52 (1907)

You can listen to the broadcast on BBC Radio 3 by clicking here (available until 26 November)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Sakari Oramo‘s Sibelius cycle continued as part of a judiciously balanced programme which opened with a rare revival of the Second Symphony by Florent Schmitt. This continues the French symphonism of Roussel and Honegger; albeit with a quirkiness of melodic thought and virtuoso handling of sizable forces to confirm Schmitt as no mere epigone. Indeed, the angular wit of the first movement suggests his willingness to confront post-war modernism head on, and if the central Lent admits warmer and even tender emotion, the finale resumes the assaultive mood with an unremitting intent through to its scabrous close. Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra had the measure of this unsettling piece throughout; their responsiveness underlining that Schmitt was not one to accept the passing of his own era with even a hint of good grace.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (below) then joined the orchestra for two staples from the French concertante repertoire, separated in time by almost half a century. Good to see that Franck‘s Variations symphoniques has now re-established itself in UK concert programmes, as this unlikely yet successful hybrid of elements from symphony and concerto, as drawn into the pithiest of its composer’s cyclical designs, has a substance more than equal to its entertainment. Bavouzet and Oramo were especially fine in the expressive contrasts of its opening minutes, and if the rhapsodic musing at its centre seemed a little inflexible, then the effervescence of its final section too forcefully projected, there was no doubting the coherence and the ingeniousness of its composer’s response to a piano-virtuoso tradition he spent much of his life despising.

That the Franck outlines a ‘three movements in one’ formal design makes it a more than likely precursor to Ravel‘s Piano Concerto in D major, the most enduring of those left-hand works written for the redoubtable (if frequently wrong-headed) Paul Wittgenstein. Not the least attraction of tonight’s performance was its emphasizing the canniness of the balance between soloist and orchestra, such that the former was never less than audible in the context of what is the most overtly rhetorical and combative of all Ravel’s works. Add to this Bavouzet’s limpidity in the eloquent theme which returns intensified in the cadenza, not to mention Oramo’s control of momentum in the jazz-inflected animation of the scherzo, and what resulted was a reading attentive to every aspect of this masterpiece: one that justifiably brought the house down.

Sibelius’s Third Symphony is easy to underestimate as a transitional work poised between overt romanticism and renewed classicism. It was to Oramo’s credit that elements of both aesthetics were not only evident but also reconciled – not least in an opening Allegro which moved between fervency and incisiveness with no mean purpose. The highlight came with a central Andantino whose quasi allegretto marking may have been minimal, but whose opening-up of emotional space made for a riveting listen. The final movement was hardly less impressive in its purposeful equivocation between scherzo and finale, Oramo teasing resolve out of uncertainty so the hymn-like theme that eventually emerges built to a powerful apotheosis. A gripping performance, reinforced by the conviction of the BBCSO’s response.

For more concert information on the BBC Symphony Orchestra, head to their website

You can hear a recording of the Florent Schmitt made by Leif Segerstam on Spotify below:

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Rob Chung on the BBC Symphony Orchestra with Sir Andrew Davis

Ask The Audience Arcana at the Proms

Last year Arcana went on a charm offensive, introducing friends to the BBC Proms, some for the first time. For the 2017 season we will continue to bring the festival to people in this way, discovering fascinating musical facts and insights as we go. For our first visit we chose the concert commemorating Sir Malcolm Sargent, one-time conductor of the Proms in the 1960s. The program replicated his 500th Prom, given in 1966 – and to offer an appraisal we invited Rob Chung (above)

Rob is DJ Chug, a drum ‘n’ bass DJ who runs his own Elements night in East London, and he has releases forthcoming this summer on Soul Deep and Co-Lab Recordings. Yet, as he revealed to Arcana, he has a classical past.

Beatrice Rana (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis

arr. Sir Henry Wood The National Anthem; Berlioz Le carnaval romain Overture, Op.9 (1844); Schumann Piano Concerto in A-minor, Op.54 (1845); Elgar Cockaigne (In London Town) Op.40 (1900-01); Walton Façade – Suite No.1; Popular Song (1922-28); Holst The Perfect Fool – Ballet Music (1918-22); Delius On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring (1912); Britten Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell (The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra), Op.34 (1945)

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

Arcana: Rob, what was your musical upbringing?

It was quite an extensive one – mainly from my sisters, when I was little. They would have anything from Duran Duran to Wham!, the big pop hits of the 1980s. My parents had a bit of Motown on vinyl, then as my sisters got older the influence came into early ‘80s R&B, swing, hip hop, De La Soul, Public Enemy, a lot of gangster rap – and then some jazz – Courtney Pine, Julian Joseph. And then it was on to drum ‘n’ bass, to Goldie and 4Hero, that kind of stuff. So that was the influence from my sisters, and then because there wasn’t any local radio in East Anglia – it was just Radio 1 or nothing, no pirate radio – I used to listen to a lot of dance DJs in the evening, such as Dave Pearce, Danny Rampling and Tim Westwood. I used to record Tim Westwood’s shows every Saturday, and fell in love with hip hop basically!

My sister came to university in London, and used to record all the drum ‘n’ bass in London, off the pirate radio stations, and she used to send me the tapes back. From there I learned what was going on in London. Then at about 15 or 16 there was a new pirate station in Norwich, of all places, called Flight FM, so I used to listen to that all the time. A lot of local DJs were playing garage and drum ‘n’ bass, and that’s when I discovered UK garage, and bought my first set of decks. I was buying anything and everything – house music, hip hop, drum ‘n’ bass, and it all went from there.

At the same time I played the piano and violin as a kid, at school. I played the violin from six years old to 18, and I was in an orchestra – I got to grade seven. I was in an orchestra at school, we used to play in the chapel and the cathedral, which you take for granted now. I have this recurring nightmare about playing on the second desk of the violins, losing my place and trying to pretend I was playing for the next hour or so. It still haunts me to this day, and I still bring it up with my school mate whenever I see him!

Have you had any other classical music experiences beyond orchestra?

Not really. I used to go to the odd concert with my parents, at Christmas carol time, otherwise not really. Not since school days.

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

Currently, Robert Glasper – a great jazz pianist, fusing hip hop, R&B and jazz, three forms I really like. He’s an amazing musician and great live. I’ve seen him about five times now, he blows me away every time.

Stevie Wonder I think is the greatest musician I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen him at Glastonbury, and at Hyde Park last year. He’s got an amazing repertoire, great albums and a great voice. He plays any instrument amazingly well, he just blows me away.

For the third one…a drum ‘n’ bass producer called Serum, who is absolutely smashing it on the drum ‘n’ bass scene at the moment. He covers all styles, has in your face, stupid jump up tunes. Anything he releases at the moment I would listen to it and probably buy it.

How did you rate your first Proms experience?

I would give it 10/10, it was awesome – amazing. Everything about it, the experience, the sound, the crowd, the quality of the orchestra, the conductor – it was a really good experience. I forgot what it was like to be at a concert but the stereo width of the sound blew me away, following the music. I was really impressed with it, and it was the Royal Albert Hall of course. The sound was crystal clear, not loud but you could hear every single thing. It was really impressive.

What was your favourite piece?

I haven’t actually decided on that yet…probably the Elgar piece…or the Schumann, with the piano. I’ll go for that one, I liked the call and response between her (Beatrice Rana) and the orchestra, with the clarinet and the cellos, going back and forth. I really enjoyed that and she was pretty special. It took you all over the place but she was the focal point as well.

You mentioned how you knew it was Elgar during the piece.

Yeah, I don’t know why – and the same with Britten as well. It feels like an English tune, I don’t know what it is. They always used to play Nimrod at the end of every year at our school, and I think it was the harmonics or the chord progression, as soon as they started playing – and how the strings come in and out, with a slow attack.

What was your least favourite?

I think it was The Perfect Fool. I got a bit lost, and couldn’t keep up with what was going on. That was the intention, right?! I couldn’t really follow it. I liked the Walton piece though, it was a bit of fun in the middle, and the fact you could get a crowd laughing at a random ending, that was pretty special. That was where the percussion came out and were really getting into their element.

What did you think of the Delius piece, On hearing the first cuckoo in spring?

I quite liked that, again – spring, the strings coming in, it was a nice, short, to the point piece.

Do you think in terms of the length of the pieces some was too long?

It’s hard to keep up for that length of time. Some of the Schumann I struggled with a bit at the end, but at the same time in the Walton when it was short and sweet I sometimes felt it was too short, a little poem rather than a chapter. It was a nice change, a bit like listening to a Disney score.

It can be quite mentally tiring trying to take all of the music in, you start wandering. But I was comparing tonight to when I saw James Blake play at Shepherd’s Bush, and it was a sensory overload with all the lights and everything, there was a lot to take in. it was like that tonight, with lots of different things going on and trying to keep up – it was a good workout for the brain.

I thought it was also interesting how someone in the orchestra can have just one small part in 30 minutes, but when you come in you can’t miss a place. The Elgar piece I felt a lot of tension building, the Walton piece – I forget you can have things in triple time. These days everything I listen to is in four!

What did you think of the concert as an experience?

It was a lot more informal than I was expecting. I enjoyed the laid back atmosphere, it seems very open – which is not what I expected at all. We had people reading their books, people lying down, a guy reading along to the music which I thought was quite cool. I liked the crowd involvement – not a lot but traditional, it was really nice. The National Anthem at the start threw me a bit (and me! – ed) but at the same time it is nice to do these things, it doesn’t happen very often.

The acoustics vary differently where you are, it’s interesting to compare down in the Arena with up in the gods. I would be interested in how they mic everything up and do the soundchecks. There is the depth of sound as well, you really feel the depth with the violins to the tuba. I liked how the organ just snuck in during the Elgar too. Nobody was out of sync, either! I was trying to spot someone…but not gonna happen!

What we said about the conductor, how much control he has over everything – I was impressed with that, how he sped it up, slowed it down and brought people in. I forget how much hard work that must be. You’ve got to know the pieces inside out, and it was very impressive.

Was there anything you would change about how the concert was staged or presented?

Not really. I guess I’m used to having members of the band introduced, pointing out a certain lead – but I guess that’s done in the programme notes. I don’t think I would change anything.

Would you go again?

Definitely, I would happily go.

Verdict: SUCCESS

 

BBC Proms 2017 – Malcolm Sargent tribute: BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis

Beatrice Rana, BBC Symphony OrchestraSir Andrew Davis

arr. Sir Henry Wood The National Anthem

Berlioz Le carnaval romain Overture, Op.9 (1844)

Schumann Piano Concerto in A-minor, Op.54 (1845)

Elgar Cockaigne (In London Town) Op.40 (1900-01)

Walton Façade – Suite No.1; Popular Song (1922-28)

Holst The Perfect Fool – Ballet Music (1918-22)

Delius On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring (1912)

Britten Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell (The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra), Op.34 (1945)

Royal Albert Hall, Monday 24 July 2017

Sir Malcolm Sargent holds a prominent place in Proms history, especially so for those Prom goers of an older vintage. It was therefore only right that in the 50th year since his passing there was a concert commemorating one of English classical music’s favourite sons. Sargent lived in a flat opposite the Royal Albert Hall, a blue plaque marking this clearly visible from Door 4 of the auditorium.

Calling Sargent a ‘favourite son’ is a statement that needs to be qualified, for not everybody held him in such high esteem. For orchestral players he could be anything but, being a hard taskmaster, but he was hugely popular with Proms audiences, boosting the profile of the festival and the Last Night in particular, to an art form fit for television. As tonight’s conductor Sir Andrew Davis recounted in a glowing tribute, he also knew how to get the best out of large choral and orchestral forces. Davis was a prommer in the 1960s, and held fond memories of Elgar, Shostakovich and Britten under the Sargent baton.

Davis himself is now 73, but still a sprightly figure who lovingly led his BBC Symphony Orchestra charges in a wide variety of English music, recreating the program given for Sargent’s 500th Prom in 1966. We ducked and dived through Berlioz, and his Le carnaval romain overture, before a glittering account of Schumann’s Piano Concerto from Beatrice Rana, herself in glittering green (above). Her quiet moments were especially profound, and she took charge of the more tempestuous passages of the outer movements with impressive control and expression. Balance is often a problem between piano and orchestra in the cavernous Royal Albert Hall acoustic, but here it was nicely achieved, and with phrases that were fleet of foot (and hand!) Rana showed why she is a highly coveted soloist.

Davis (below) came into his own for the second half. An English music expert whose interpretations are now virtually unrivalled, he brought forward the bustling streets of London for Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture, balancing the organ with the orchestra impeccably as he did so. The big tunes were affectionately wrought and great fun, as they were in Walton’s mischievous music for Façade, an entertaining suite where the percussion section, led by the ever masterful David Hockings, came out on top form.

Holst’s ballet music for The Perfect Fool was treated to a delicately shaded performance, sonorous trombones underpinning a rewarding orchestral sound, with dances of great character. Meanwhile Delius gave us a sunkissed reverie, On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, temporarily overriding the clouds outside.

Finally we moved to Britten, and a performance of the Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra that was as much fun to watch as it was to listen to. The composer’s clever navigation of each orchestral section is a great introduction for new listeners but also reminds the older ones of the colours and expressive techniques each instrument can produce. Davis handled the twists and turns to great effect, and this hugely entertaining evening reached its peak with all sections combined, Purcell’s original theme now refracted through Britten’s technicolour lens.

It was a great way to finish and a fitting tribute to Sargent, who conducted the work’s world premiere back in 1946. He would surely have been proud of Davis and his charges, who sent the crowd away smiling – something Sargent himself achieved on countless occasions.

Ben Hogwood (photos (c) Ben Hogwood (plaque) and Chris Christodoulou (performances)

Stay tuned for the first in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series, where drum ‘n’ bass DJ Rob Chung will give his verdict on the Malcolm Sargent Prom. Coming shortly!