On record – Mahan Esfahani: J.S. Bach – Toccatas (Hyperion)

J.S. Bach
Toccata in F sharp minor BWV910
Toccata in C minor BWV911
Toccata in D major BWV912
Toccata in D minor BWV913
Toccata in E minor BWV914
Toccata in G minor BWV915
Toccata in G major BWV916

Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord)

Hyperion CDA 68244 [76’54”]

Recorded August 2019 at St. John the Baptist, Loughton, Essex

Producer Sébastian Chonion
Engineer David Hinitt

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Mahan Esfahani has been playing a lot of J.S. Bach lately. With a series of the composer’s complete keyboard works ongoing at the Wigmore Hall, and with a well-received account of the Goldberg Variations in the bag from his stint at Deutsche Grammophon, now would seem the ideal time to document his thoughts on some of Bach’s most extrovert and unpredictable works for harpsichord, the Toccatas.

What’s the music like?

Exuberant and even flamboyant. Those are two words you might not readily apply to Bach, certainly in the wrong performance, but this is the sort of recording to remind you that not only was Johann Sebastian a master of the more theoretical processes in music, he could write music of breathtaking originality too.

The Toccatas are the work of a young man looking to experiment and explore, and also to entertain. Esfahani really captures that spirit of freedom from the first to last notes, the Toccata in G major setting us down in a crumpled heap around 76 minutes later.

It helps to have the performer’s accompanying notes on the works, and how difficult it is to arrive at a scholarly direction on how they should be played. What matters as much is the performer’s input, and – as he acknowledges – the producer and engineer, to whom he expresses heartfelt thanks as his own ‘therapists’.

Does it all work?

Emphatically, yes. This feels like just the right stage in Esfahani’s career for him to tackle these works, and his response is stylish and reverent, outgoing too – so that the more overtly display-dominated items are real audience pleasers, and the telling pauses or slow passages are delivered with gravitas and great feeling.

For there is music of great theatre and occasion here. Presented in catalogue order, we begin with the Toccata in F sharp minor BWV910, which begins with a thrilling rush of the right hand, before dance figures take over. A stern central section leads to a rediscovery of its positive stance towards the end.

The Toccata in C minor BWV911 follows, its fugue deliberately paced to start with and then allowed to pick up its natural momentum. Esfahani, so assured in his playing, brings each part in with a firm inevitability as the closing pages approach before signing off emphatically.

The Toccata in D major BWV912 features some really impressive, florid passage work, while the D minor work, BWV813, feels like an answer with its stern, imposing contours. This work really springs forward in Esfahani’s hands around the 3:30 mark, before a superb, authoritative finish, with the pleasure of hearing the keys released at the end.

The instrument’s lower register really sings in the Toccata in E minor BWV914, notable for its bold lines, before an extremely descriptive episode that is so strongly characterised it feels like a scene from a play. When the big rush of counterpoint comes later, Esfahani again exerts close control.

The Toccata in G minor BWV915 starts with a sense of occasion, a cascade in the right hand before a nimble dance and a flourish, before the final Toccata in G major BWV916, a solo concerto in all but name. This has a celebratory air, its descending motif in clumps of chords rather like a peal of bells. Then a slow, thoughtful movement in E minor (the closest relative key of G) provides a reflective episode before a lively return home for an upbeat finale.

Complementing these seven impressive utterances are an ideal harpsichord sound and recording, the church chosen by Hyperion offering just the right amount of depth to the recorded sound, so we hear the clarity of Bach’s writing but also its ambitious scope.

Is it recommended?

Without hesitation. If you tend towards the organ works when listening to Bach played on the keyboard, this is just the disc to show you what you are missing on the harpsichord side of the equation.

Mahan Esfahani plays these works with formidable technique and with passion too, taking every opportunity to bring Bach’s flourishing works to life. What a cover, too!

Buy

For more information on this release and to purchase in multiple file formats, you can visit the Hyperion website

On record: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins – Sir Michael Tippett: Symphonies nos. 3 & 4; Symphony in B flat (Hyperion)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sir Michael Tippett
Symphony no.3 (1970-2)
Symphony no.4 (1976-7)
Symphony in B flat major (1932-3)

Rachel Nicholls (soprano, Symphony no.3), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

Hyperion CDA68231/2 [two discs, 120’40”]

Producer Andrew Keener
Engineer Simon Eadon
Recorded 3-5 February 2018 at City Halls, Glasgow

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra follow their release of Sir Michael Tippett’s first two symphonies (reviewed here on Arcana) with his succeeding two such pieces, along with a first recording for the Symphony in B flat originally intended to be his ‘Opus 1’.

What’s the music like?

Commenced in the wake of Beethoven’s bicentenary, the Symphony no.3 is Tippett’s most ambitious in concept – its four movements falling into two parts such as interrogate without abandoning the formal archetype. Brabbins emphasizes its initial contrast between stasis and dynamism, in the process highlighting unexpected detail, though without the visceral impact of Sir Colin Davis (Decca) or Richard Hickox (Chandos). The Lento is night-music of profound inwardness tellingly realized here, albeit eschewing the ultimate intensity at the climax of the central string threnody. The scherzo that launches Part Two again predicates clarity ahead of impetus: the ensuing blues numbers – respectively soulful, capricious and plaintive – seem a little low-key, but this is no fault of Rachel Nicholls; her singing more accurate than Heather Harper (Davis) and far more insightful than Faye Robinson (Hickox) here or in that extended scena where Tippett confronts then embraces the Beethovenian tenet of compassion. Brabbins rightly ensures its final antagonism between discord and pathos is left hanging in the balance.

Although yet to regain its former eminence, the Symphony no.4 is still the most frequently heard of this cycle and here brings out the most in Brabbins’s Tippettian instincts. Expansive without becoming sluggish and considered without being turgid, it sustains the expressive arc of this single-movement design with no mean conviction – not least in the eruptive climax at its centre which forms this work’s formal and emotional fulcrum, emphasizing its centrifugal rather than centripetal trajectory (unlike Sibelius Seven, to which the present work is often if erroneously compared). Closer in its unforced momentum to Tippett’s account (NMC) than that by Georg Solti (Decca) who premiered it, Brabbins never undersells the music’s forceful persona for all that its introspective qualities are primary. One aspect of this ostensible ‘birth to death’ piece he realizes more convincingly than any predecessor is the human breathing at key moments in its progress – achieved by the subtle deployment of recent technology so the closing bars, in particular, convey an evanescing of life which the composer surely intended.

It is a fair jolt stylistically to go from here into the Symphony in B flat. This latter had at least three hearings and was several-times revised until being discarded in 1944. Received wisdom suggests a reliance on Sibelius but though its formal processes are overtly Sibelian, its sound is much less so if not yet that of Tippett. The first movement is an eventful yet gauche sonata design – its themes intensified in a fusion of development and reprise then framed by a limpid introduction that returns sombrely at the close. What follows is less a slow movement than an intermezzo in which modal and chromatic elements alternate to ambiguous effect, then a final rondo of pronounced folk inflection that builds toward an apotheosis whose hopeful optimism speaks touchingly of the ‘confidence of youth’. Brabbins finds a committed response in music where lambent harmonies and tricky if untypical rhythms go some way to offsetting any lack of melodic profile. Whatever else, the composer’s trustees were right to sanction revival of a piece that offers fascinating insight into Tippett’s creativity before it began falling into place.

Does it all work?

As on the previous release, Brabbins secures excellent playing from the BBCSSO that does not always render Tippett’s exacting rhythms with quite the clarity or impetus required. Not that this undermines too seriously the idiomatic feel of these readings, abetted by the depth and perspective of the recorded sound. At its best (during parts of the Third and most of the Fourth Symphonies), it would certainly be first choice for those coming to the pieces afresh; still, the door remains open for a Tippett cycle that gets to the heart of this inspiring music.

Is it recommended?

Yes, but for the Third Symphony seek out a live 1976 account by Raymond Leppard and the BBC Symphony, with Josephine Barstow a magisterial soprano (BBC Classics). Notes are by Oliver Soden, whose Tippett biography has recently been published (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

You can read more about this release on the Hyperion website, while for more on Sir Michael Tippett, visit the Tippett foundation. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra can be found here, while more on Martyn Brabbins can be found here

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

Elizabeth Llewellyn (soprano), Marcus Farnsworth (baritone), BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

Vaughan Williams
A Sea Symphony (Symphony no.1 in B flat minor) (1903-09)
Darest thou now, O soul (1925)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Following his impressive take on A London Symphony (given in the 1918 version), Martyn Brabbins here continues his Vaughan Williams cycle with its predecessor A Sea Symphony, coupled with a choral setting which reinforces the composer’s adherence to Walt Whitman.

What’s the music like?

Now that most of the numerous orchestral pieces Vaughan Williams wrote at the turn of the 20th century have been recorded, the context for the present work is far clearer than hitherto. Yet it still took six years before A Sea Symphony was completed; during which time, both its actual concept and his musical aesthetic underwent radical change. The premiere in Leeds on 12th October 1910 may have overshadowed by that of the Tallis Fantasia just a month before, but the larger work likewise confirmed VW’s arrival as a leading composer of his generation.

While not an overly long work (lasting around 67 minutes), A Sea Symphony feels expansive as compared to Vaughan Williams’s later such works and benefits from a formally focussed approach. This it receives from Brabbins, who controls the first movement securely from its magisterial opening, through its eventful if prolix ‘development’ then on to a rapt conclusion. The ensuing nocturne is less problematic and Brabbins duly points up the contrast between its fervent climax and pensive introspection on either side. He secures a rousing response in the scherzo, with its unabashed echoes of Elgar and Parry, then steers a convincing course across the expansive finale – whether in its cumulative earlier stages, its eloquent central vocal duet or the closing stages with their stark juxtaposing of bracing peroration and ethereal postlude.

Throughout this recording, the playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra is responsive and committed, while the singing of the BBC Symphony Chorus leaves nothing to be desired in terms of tonal finesse and rhythmic articulation. The two soloists are less consistent. Marcus Farnsworth lacks presence during the combative baritone contribution to the first movement, though his stoic musing in its successor is far more persuasive. A soprano with the requisite mezzo range, Elisabeth Llewellyn yet evinces a vibrato in her higher register that can prove distracting, but this is less of a problem in the finale – she and Farnsworth exuding warmth and ardency in its lyrical central duet, while bringing poise without indulgence towards its close as vocal phrases stretch out in parallel to the expanse of that ‘journey’ being evoked.

Does it all work?

Yes, notwithstanding those reservations noted above. Brabbins adopts a firm though flexible approach which is demonstrably in the lineage of Sir Adrian Boult and Vernon Handley. Both orchestral playing and choral singing are first rate (in advance of that for Andrew Davis in the BBC’s first VW cycle a quarter-century ago), and there is once again an enterprising coupling. Darest though now, O soul finds Vaughan Williams briefly revisiting a Whitman text he set 18 years before in Toward the Unknown Region, reduced to a hymnal setting for unison chorus and strings.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound finds an ideal balance between spaciousness and definition, with probing notes by Robert Matthew-Walker. If Brabbins’s Sea Symphony is slightly less fine than his London Symphony, it is a consistent follow-up in what looks set to be impressive VW cycle.

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: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins – Sir Michael Tippett: Symphonies nos. 1 & 2 (Hyperion)

Tippett Symphonies nos. 1 & 2 BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

Tippett
Symphony no.1 (1944-5)
Symphony no.2 (1956-7)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

A new recording of Michael Tippett’s symphonies, following on from those by Colin DavisGeorg Solti (Decca, 1968-81) and Richard Hickox (Chandos, 1992-4) was sorely needed, and with his prowess in British music Martyn Brabbins would seem well placed to provide it.

Having begun his cycle of Vaughan Williams symphonies, Brabbins now embarks on those of Tippett, whose reputation seems to be on the ascent given the inevitable decline after his death in 1998. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra may not have had a close association with this music, though the fact each of these recordings was preceded by a live performance at least ensure what is heard here are those interpretations intended by Brabbins rather than merely a run-through that comprises studio takes methodically assembled in post-production.

What’s the music like?

In the First Symphony, informed by the tragedies of war and personal loss, Brabbins handles the initial Allegro’s bracing polyphonic discourse with assurance – less unyielding than Colin Davis if not quite evincing the forward resolve of Richard Hickox. The exposition’s motivic elements are precisely individuated then vividly contrasted in the development, though there could have been greater intensity during the reprise before it reaches stasis in the coda. The Adagio is the highlight here, a passacaglia afforded focus by the expressive contrasts of its variations and cohesion by their near-symmetrical trajectory. Slower then either of his rivals, Brabbins secures greater momentum so that the sombre augmentation of the theme caps this sombre movement overall. The scherzo’s outer sections have the right rhythmic buoyancy, even if its songful trio is a little reticent, and while the twin subjects of the finale’s double-fugue are well delineated, the transition into the reprise lacks impetus; the climactic ‘stretto’ less potent than its disintegration in the coda, though this is likely what Tippett intended.

This remains a frequently impressive account, with that of the more wide-ranging Second Symphony only marginally less so. Its opening Allegro is the finest on disc – more flexible than Davis and less stolid than Hickox, while generating kinetic energy in the development and truly Beethovenian coda. If the Adagio feels less convincing, this is not through lack of insight on Brabbins’s part or finesse on that of the BBCSSO but rather a sense that the ideas in its mosaic-like construction are being juxtaposed without admitting that greater eloquence Hickox finds at a slower tempo and Tippett himself (NMC) conveys to rapturous effect. The scherzo is disappointing as, for all the wealth of detail uncovered, the underlying tempo is too staid for momentum to accrue so the climax feels less Dionysian than merely incisive. Some might also consider the finale too steady, yet Brabbins succeeds more than those before him in knitting the four parts of this fantasia-like sequence into an organic process of continuous variation through to a coda as brings the work forcefully but never overbearingly full-circle.

Does it all work?

Most of the time. As recorded in Glasgow’s City Halls, the orchestral sound has clarity and lustre well in advance of those earlier readings, even if the acerbities of Tippett’s scoring can seem a little too well-blended (the balance of trumpets in the outer movements of the Second Symphony being a case in point), hence a relatively high playback level is preferable. Oliver Soden’s annotations are informed and informative, though not free of occasional tautologies or affectations that one hopes will not feature in his forthcoming biography of the composer.

Is it recommended?

Yes. Whatever their difficulties in execution, the intrinsic musical qualities of Tippett’s symphonies cannot be doubted and this first instalment augurs well for the rest of the cycle. Nos. 3 and 4, as well as the early Symphony in B flat, are due from Hyperion later this year.

You can read more about this release on the Hyperion website, while for more on Sir Michael Tippett, visit the Tippett foundation. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra can be found here, while more on Martyn Brabbins can be found here

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