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

Prom 14 – BBC Philharmonic / John Storgårds: Single-movement Sibelius, Zimmermann, Schubert & Wagner

Prom 14: Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Louis Lortie (piano), BBC Philharmonic OrchestraJohn Storgårds

Wagner Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – Prelude to Act One (c1861)
Schubert (orch. Liszt) Four Songs (1825/1815/1826/1815, orch. 1860)
Zimmermann Symphony in One Movement (1947-51, rev. 1953)
Schubert (arr. Liszt) Fantasy in C, D760, ‘Wanderer’ (1822, arr. c1850)
Sibelius Symphony No. 7 in C, Op. 105 (1924)

Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 24 July 2018

You can listen to this Prom by clicking here

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

John Storgårds has given some enterprising concerts during his tenure as Chief Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, and this evening’s Prom was a further instance with its programme of mainly one-movement pieces and an underlying emphasis on symphonic cohesion, even unity.

The exception was the sequence of four songs by Schubert, arranged for orchestra by Liszt so that a tenuous cohesion is evident – without this being a song-cycle as such. Elizabeth Watts (below) duly had the measure of their predominantly sombre sentiments – ranging from the distanced recollection of Die junge Nonne, via remorseless passing of experiential time in Gretchen am Spinnrade and speculative radiance of Lied der Mignon, to visceral representation of fate in Erlkönig. Storgårds teased many subtleties from Liszt’s judiciously restrained orchestration.

Preceding this came a surprisingly dour account of the Prelude from The Mastersingers of Nuremburg. This grandest of Wagner music-dramas is also the most symphonic, not least its Prelude as it deftly outlines a four-movements-in-one format. While not being oblivious to this, Storgårds might have characterized these episodes more potently, though this may have been in line with his tendency to play down the music’s opulence and majesty. What resulted was a subdued and earnest performance that hardly marked him out as a budding Wagnerian.

Concluding the first half was the Symphony in One Movement by Bernd Alois Zimmermann; a timely hearing in this centenary year of the composer’s birth. Although the more discursive original version (complete with organ histrionics) has recently been revived, this revision is audibly more focussed in form and expression as it traverses a quirky yet combative sonata design – (modified!) exposition repeat included – before emerging full circle in a mood of unbridled ferocity. Storgårds was at his interpretative best here, maintaining a tensile course over an eventful score where influences of mid-century symphonism do not outface pointers to the intricacy or intensity of Zimmermann’s mature music. A notably enthusiastic reception suggested that tonight’s audience ‘got’ what the composer was about in this singular piece.

Time was when Liszt’s concertante realization of Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy was a staple at these concerts, but this was only the second hearing in nearly six decades. 33 years ago, the soloist was Jorge Bolet at his unpredictable best, but Louis Lortie’s rendition (above) was altogether subtler as he brought out the pathos of the Andante then jocularity of the Presto. If the outer Allegro sections felt reined-in, this was not at the expense of that keen virtuosity informing Lortie’s playing in his solo passages or coruscating interplay with the orchestra at the close.

A century on, Sibelius not only ran movements together in his Seventh Symphony but fused them into a seamless and powerfully cumulative whole. Storgårds was certainly alive to this in what was a purposeful and often insightful reading; a little unsettled in those introductory pages, perhaps, but thereafter gauging the various transitions with a sure sense of where this music was headed while investing the vertiginous trombone entries with implacable majesty. One of this season’s most absorbing concerts thus far was brought to an impressive close.

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

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

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

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

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

What’s the music like?

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

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

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

Does it all work?

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

Is it recommended?

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

For further information on this release, visit the Hyperion website, or the BBC Symphony Orchestra. You can also read more about Martyn Brabbins here

On record: Alessandro Scarlatti – Con eco d’amore

scarlatti-watts

The extremely promising young soprano Elizabeth Watts delivers a stunning disc of arias from operas and cantatas by Alessandro Scarlatti, in the company of The English Concert and Laurence Cummings. The disc is released by Harmonia Mundi

What’s the music like?

Elizabeth Watts and Laurence Cummings deliver a well-chosen selection of arias here, representing the many and varied moods the Italian baroque composer Alessandro Scarlatti can conjure up in his vocal works.

We move from the high energy bout between soprano and trumpet, Se geloso è il mio core, to the dreamy Mentr’io godo in dolce oblio, in arias tending to last between three and five minutes. Scarlatti is a very expressive composer, responding to the words with music that taxes his performers.

Does it all work?

Without question. The levels of musicianship here are uncommonly high, and that’s before we even get to talking about Elizabeth Watts. Trumpeter Mark Bennett is outstanding in his role as the soprano’s opponent in Se geloso è il mio core, the sort of work in which composers of Scarlatti’s day specialised. Violinist Huw Daniel is then exceptionally good in his role as soloist in the cadenzas of Esci omai.

Yet it is nonetheless Watts who steals the show, because she can go from the high register bravura of Figlio! Tiranno! O Dio! to the withdrawn, sensitive singing of Nacque, col Gran Messia and the sparing use of vibrato for the opening strains of Ombre opache, a lament from the cantata Correa Nel Seno Amato, which contains arguably the most powerful music here.

The real technical showstopper is D’Amor l’accesa face, from the serenata Venere, Amore e Ragione, where Cupid warns against showing too much desire. Watts’ performance suggests the opposite is in fact the case!

Cummings and The English Concert are very fine image painters, and their dramatic orchestral response in the recitativo from Erminia, Qui, dove al germogliar, is illustrative of the power they have at their disposal – and Cummings secures from them particularly careful attention to detail on the volume of their contributions.

Is it recommended?

Unreservedly. With performances of great enthusiasm and technical command, you will find few if any discs of the Baroque era to better this one in 2015.

Listen on Spotify

You can hear Con eco d’amore on Spotify here:

Wigmore Mondays – Elizabeth Watts and Julius Drake

Elizabeth Watts, Photo : Marco Borggreve

Elizabeth Watts, Photo : Marco Borggreve

Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Julius Drake (piano) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 26 October 2015

Listening link (open in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06kb0f0

on the iPlayer until 25 November

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify playlist of the music in this concert, from available versions on Spotify (which do not include the Liszt song Quand tu chantes bercée).

What’s the music?

Liszt: 6 settings of poetry by Victor Hugo (dates are for first versions only): Enfant, si j’étais roi (1849); S’il est un charmant gazon (1844); Comment, disaient-ils (1842); La tombe et la rose (1844); Quand tu chantes bercée (c1844-45); Oh! quand je dors (1842) (21 minutes)

Debussy: Ariettes oubliées (1885-1887) (17 minutes)

Hahn: 4 Hugo settings: Rêverie (1888); Si mes vers avaient des ailes (1888); L’Incrédule (1893); Fêtes galantes (1892) (9 minutes)

What about the music?

A recital bringing together some richly varied settings of two French poets, Victor Hugo and Paul Verlaine.

It also gives us the opportunity to listen to some of the large output of Franz Liszt, who is best known for his piano music but whose songs have enjoyed greater prominence in recent years. He and the poet Victor Hugo were friends, meeting in Paris in the 1830s, and Liszt went on to set a number of his poems to music.

Debussy’s Ariettes oubliées (Forgotten Songs) is a cycle of six songs for voice and piano, based on a poem written by Paul Verlaine, who the composer knew and whose verse was a profound influence throughout the composer’s career.

We return to Victor Hugo for several settings by the Venezuelan-born French composer Reynaldo Hahn, who is best known for his song settings. This group of four includes Si mes vers avaient des ailes, the song that really brought Hahn to public attention and which, in the words of Graham Johnson, ‘has become his motto song’.

Performance verdict

A note first of all to say Arcana did not attend this concert, so the review is directly from the radio performance.

What is abundantly clear is that Elizabeth Watts is becoming a soloist of real repute, and one who has a very impressive and diverse repertoire. It was especially gratifying to hear her accounts of the Hugo settings by Liszt, not heard much in the concert hall but invested with real passion here, Watts floating effortlessly through the high notes as Julius Drake set the scene. Drake is an experienced pianist in Liszt songs, and is in the process of recording his output for Hyperion – and his ability to find the detail to point up alongside the vocal line was a real asset.

The Debussy had an essential mystique that Drake was quick to create in his piano part, Watts controlling her voice wonderfully well in the tricky melodic intervals. Meanwhile the Hahn selection sparkled, showing off this composer’s flair for word setting as well as the natural chemistry between Watts and Drake.

What should I listen out for?

Liszt

1:57 Enfant, si j’étais roi (Child, if I were king) translation here – a typically grand setting from Liszt, with a big piano part, while the soprano sings boldly above. A brave piece with which to start a recital! In the second verse the piano adopts a more threatening bass line as the soprano extols the virtue of a kiss from her lover.

5:13 S’il est un charmant gazon (If there’s a lovely grassy plot) translation here – a more gentle and loving song, this, with a similar mood to the opening of Brahms’ Violin Sonata no.2. The music flows with a mood of relative contentment.

7:41 Comment, disaient-ils (How then, asked he) translation here a nervy piano accompaniment immediately puts this song on each, though the floated higher vocal counters that somewhat. This is a short song but the high note at the end from the soprano carries a lasting impact.

9:49 La tombe et la rose (The tomb says to the rose) translation here This time we hear the soprano in a much lower range and with a fuller voice as Liszt takes on the much heavier text. There is weight in the piano part, too, though here as with a couple of the other songs it feels like Liszt has a short attention span.

13:44 Quand tu chantes bercée (When you sing in the evening) translation here This song has much softer contours, with a restful piano part and a relatively smooth vocal line for the soprano. That is not to say passion is lacking though, especially when the soprano sings ‘Chantez, ma belle’ (‘Sing, my pretty one’)

16:17 Oh! quand je dors (Oh! When I sleep) translation here As the title suggests here is a lullaby, though this one doubles as a love song. Again the soprano has to sing high, especially given the passion of Hugo’s text. The piano immediately sets the scene of rapture.

Debussy

The words for Ariettes oubliées are here

24:12 – C’est l’extase langoureuse (It is ecstasy) A heady song as you might expect from the title, which hangs on the air heavily. This whole impression is helped by Debussy’s chromatic writing, with soprano and piano right hand often in unison. The rich harmonies and melodies might sound awkward in isolation but, in a performance such as this, they are totally natural.

27:28 – Il pleure dans mon cœur…(It weeps in my heart) One of Debussy’s most celebrated early songs, delighting – or finding sorrow, rather – in the sound of the rain ‘on the ground and on the roofs’. A wide range is called for on the part of the soprano, not to mention the restless yet easily flowing piano part.

30:28 – L’ombre de arbres (The shadow of the trees) ‘The shadow of the trees, in the mist-covered river’ find the soprano beginning in a lower range, the air thick with humidity. This is a more sorrowful lament, the piano essentially standing by while the singer emotes – nowhere more so than the high note of 32:06.

33:14 – Chevaux de bois (Merry-go-round) A brilliant evocation of the fairground, the merry-go-round burling around dizzily on the piano, over which the soprano sings of the hurrying horses. Debussy’s quick moving harmonies are ideally suited to this sort of setting. The song ends quietly.

36:31 – Green A love song. The soprano has to travel quite a way in the course of this song, from low asides to higher outpourings of intense feeling. The twinkling of the piano’s right hand provides an effective counterpoint.

38:36 – Spleen A downcast song, reflecting on how ‘all my despair is reborn’. This does still take place over some exotic harmony on the part of the composer, the song moving far and wide in its melodic and harmonic reach.

Hahn

43:09 – Rêverie – translation here A halting figure on the piano feels like an offbeat waltz, accompanying the soprano as she sings, lingering on the word ‘kiss’. The song is relatively conventional in its structure.

45:11 – Si mes vers avaient des ailes (If my verses had wings) – translation here – a bright and positive love song, the singer clearly lost in thoughts of her beloved – and reaching some beautifully spun high notes along the way, with twinkling piano account. The last notes need particularly impressive control as the music slows.

47:52 L’Incrédule (The Sceptic) – translation here – a softly coloured but rather moving song, which has its conviction in the last lines, where the singer declares ‘And my faith is so deep in all that I believe in that I live for you alone’

50:11 Fêtes galantes – translation here – one of Hahn’s most endearing songs to close, the sparkling piano introduction keeping a detached feel as the singer spins higher notes above. The ‘shivering breeze’ is brilliantly evoked in the piano.

Encores

53:32 An encore of a Victor Hugo setting, L’Attente, (1840) from Richard Wagner. As Elizabeth Watts says to the audience, it’s not exactly easy – whether it’s the full bodied, high register vocal or the heavily congested piano part!

 

Further listening

Something completely different to complement Elizabeth Watts’ artistry, and also to show just how versatile she is. This is a recently released album of vocal works by the Baroque composer Alessandro Scarlatti, given with The English Concert and Laurence Cummings:

https://open.spotify.com/album/1Crx7DHWHCAqV7za0K80oX