BBC Symphony Orchestra & Martyn Brabbins – Havergal Brian’s ‘Sinfonia Tragica’ + Rubbra & Grøndahl


Richard Whitehouse on the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Martyn Brabbins (above) in a concert recorded at the orchestra’s home in Maida Vale

Rubbra Symphony No.11 Op. 153 (1979)

Grøndahl Trombone Concerto (1924)

Brian Symphony No.6 Sinfonia tragica (1948)

Jörgen van Rijen (trombone), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

Maida Vale Studios, Tuesday 11 October

The BBC Symphony continues to schedule some of its most distinctive concerts at its Maida Vale studios, and this afternoon saw Martyn Brabbins at the helm for a sequence of English and Danish music – all being pieces that are rarely, if ever, encountered in UK concert halls.

When Edmund Rubbra’s Eleventh Symphony received its premiere at the 1980 Proms, it must have felt appreciably more distant in aesthetic than it now does. Yet timelessness was central to the composer’s music; nowhere more than this 18-minute summation of both his symphonic and orchestral thinking. Its two continuous sections – a ‘moderate’ Andante, then a ‘calm and serene’ Adagio – offer only incremental expressive change, though the cumulative emotional impact as Rubbra evolves intervallic motifs via a seamless process of developing variation is undoubted; as also his fashioning of alternately diaphanous and granitic instrumentation. This latter was superbly rendered by the BBCSO, with Brabbins attentive to the music’s wealth of detail and its by no means untroubled emergence towards an eloquent plateau of tranquillity.

jorgen-van-rijenNext came a welcome revival for the Trombone Concerto by Launy Grøndahl, best known as a conductor (he premiered Robert Simpson’s First Symphony in Copenhagen) but who, on the basis of those pieces to have been recorded, evinced a modest while appealing compositional talent.

The outer movements of his concerto alternate between trenchant and lyrical ideas, the latter having a deftness to offset the hints of rhythmic stolidity elsewhere, but it is the central Andante – in its initial blues-inflected theme and resourceful deployment of piano – that most readily confirms its composer’s prowess. Here, as throughout the piece, Jörgen van Rijen (above) was unfailingly perceptive – underlining the extent to which Grøndahl, a violinist by training, had mastered the technical range of an instrument whose overall potential remains to be realized.

During the break, Van Rijn performed Slipstream by the German-born composer and metal guitarist Florian Magnus Maier (b1973) – its interplay of live playing and recorded repetition, via a loop-station operated by the musician, affording a fresh twist to Reich-style minimalism.

Brabbins has championed Havergal Brian extensively on disc; his live advocacy so far limited (!) to a revival of the Gothic symphony at the 2011 Proms. At just under 20 minutes, Sinfonia tragica comes near the opposite end (albeit conceptually) of his orchestral output. Envisaged as the prelude to an opera on J. M. Synge’s Deirdre of the Sorrows that was soon abandoned, it was not incorporated into his canon for two decades, yet its symphonic status is not hard to discern.

The BBCSO duly had the measure of its progress, as unpredictable as it is inevitable – from the fugitive gestures of its opening section, through the (surprisingly?) long-breathed melodic writing at its centre, to the eruptive activity and stoic processional of its final pages. A persuasive reading of a piece that ranks among its composer’s most immediate utterances.

Indeed, this was a persuasive concert overall – one that made light of the turgid accusations sometimes levelled at Rubbra, or the unplayability too often associated with Brian. Hopefully the BBCSO and Brabbins will continue their exploration of this rewarding music at future studio concerts.

This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 during November – further details to follow

In concert – Bristol University SO / John Pickard – The Vision of Cleopatra

bristol-uso-pickardImage credit: Bhagesh Sachania

Eve Daniell (soprano), Rachael Cox (mezzo-soprano), Angharad Lyddon (contralto), Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (tenor), Alexander Learmonth (baritone), Bristol University Choral Society and Symphony Orchestra / John Pickard

Victoria Rooms, Bristol; Saturday 12th March, 2016

Beethoven Mass in C, Op.86 (1807)

Brian The Vision of Cleopatra (1907)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The regular concerts given by the Bristol University Symphony Orchestra can be relied upon for innovative programming, as was proved this evening with the first performance in 107 years of the most ambitious earlier work by Havergal Brian – his cantata The Vision of Cleopatra.

The work was finished in 1907 and premiered at the Southport Festival two years on, where it enjoyed a succès d’estime but no further performances. Loss of the orchestral score and parts during the 1941 Blitz made any revival impossible until 2014, when John Pickard undertook the new orchestration that received its first hearing tonight. Brian’s orchestral pieces from the 1900s offered a viable point of departure, though Cleopatra is hardly more indebted to these than to Pickard’s own large-scale works. The outcome is highly audacious within the context of British music from this period, notably for its taking on board those possibilities opened-up by Richard Strauss in his controversial opera Salomé – unheard in the UK until 1910, but which Brian had most likely studied from the score and absorbed its innovations accordingly.

Whatever else (and for all that Gerald Cumberland’s rather tepid libretto tries hard to suggest otherwise), Cleopatra is no anodyne Edwardian morality. After the orchestral Slave Dance that functions as a lively overture, the cantata unfolds as a sequence of nominally symphonic movements: a speculative dialogue between two of the queen’s retainers, then an increasingly fervent duet between Cleopatra and Antony followed, in its turn, by an expansive aria for the former; divided by a speculative choral interlude and concluded by a Funeral March of stark immediacy. So systematic yet by no means inflexible a formal trajectory serves to predicate expressive continuity over scenic evocation, a sure pointer to Brian’s future as a leading mid-century symphonist who operated at an intriguing remove from the Modernism of this period.

The Vision of Cleopatra may have fazed its first-night performers, but there was little tentative or underwhelming about tonight’s rendition. Eve Daniell was sympathetic as Iris and Rachael Cox even more so as Charmion, complementing each other effectively as the retainers, while Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts made an ardent showing as Antony whose tendency to histrionics was understandable. Angharad Lyddon, though, stole the show (as she needed to) as Cleopatra – bringing real eloquence to her climactic aria while evincing palpable depth of tone that made light of Brian’s exacting demands. Bristol University Choral Society sang with evident lustre, and Pickard secured a committed response from his forces – alive to those audacities that the composer doubtless put into his orchestral writing and which were grippingly to the fore here.

The first half had seen a welcome revival of Beethoven’s Mass in C, a work destined to live in the shadow of its ‘solemn’ successor but whose almost cyclical constuction is allied to a generosity of spirit in itself affecting. Some fine choral and solo singing – notably from the baritone Alexander Learmonth – was allied to a perceptive interpretation which (rightly) put emotional emphasis on the Benedictus, most enquiring of this work’s sections whose repose communicated itself to tonight’s listeners as surely as it eluded those hearing it 109 years ago.