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