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 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

On record: Stephen Hough – Debussy: Piano Music (Hyperion)

Debussy Piano Music Stephen Hough (piano)

Debussy
Estampes (1903)
Images Set I (1905)
Images Set II (1907)
Children’s Corner (1906/8)
La plus que lente (1910)
L’isle joyeuse (1903/4)

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

This centenary-year collection from Stephen Hough takes in Debussy’s best-known suites for piano, simultaneously offering an ideal introduction to the composer’s music.

What’s the music like?

This disc is a great illustration of the strides Debussy made in piano music in the first decade of the 20th century. Starting with Estampes, Stephen Hough immediately shows the listener how the added note chords, elusive melodic figures and watery textures still create pictures of deep emotional substance. Every note counts with Debussy, and his music uses some particularly alluring chord progressions, creating pictures and moods unlike any composer of the day.

So too with both books of Images, the style further developed, while making more obvious references to the composers influential in Debussy’s development (the Hommage a Rameau for instance). The mood becomes more playful with Children’s Corner, much loved for its characterisations of infant toys. The Golliwogg’s Cake Walk is a big part of this, its winsome syncopations and catchy tune both reasons for its place as one of the composer’s best-loved pieces. It is a great example of a tricky piece made to sound simple.

Does it all work?

Very much so. Stephen Hough clearly loves these pieces; he knows just how he wants them to go, and in Children’s Corner he is not afraid to bring out the inner infant. Estampes and Images are richly coloured and commandingly played, the piano sound offering clean and precisely shaded pictures. Hough’s masterly command of the phrasing in La soirée dans Grenade is especially impressive, while Jardins sons la pluie is also brilliantly played.

The Images are lovely. Reflets d’ans l’eau melts under Hough’s soft touch, while Mouvements shows off the technical ability he has in spades, with flawless octave playing giving clarity above the whirl of notes beneath. By contrast Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut is exquisitely restrained, Hough paying particular attention to the colour realised in his slow picture painting.

The addition of short pieces La plus que lente and L’isle joyeuse offer great space and colour, the icing on the cake of this recital.

Is it recommended?

Yes. If Debussy’s piano music is new to you, let this be the way in. If it is already familiar then these interpretations will bring it to life once more, exploring the composer’s love of the dance and also his ability to create sounds and textures placing the piano in a whole new context. Buy it and be transported away.

Roger Vignoles – A Strauss Odyssey

Roger Vignoles is one of Britain’s best-established accompanists. Respected for his technical ability, experience, breadth of repertoire and the work he does nurturing singers old and new, he is regularly seen at the illustrious venues worldwide.

More recently at the Wigmore Hall he has plotted a course through the daunting output of songs by Richard Strauss, a lesser known corner of the composer’s output. This has been complemented on disc courtesy of Hyperion, their series recently completed by an eighth and final disc with tenor Nicky Spence and soprano Rebecca Evans.

In a fascinating interview he talks with Arcana about his own introduction to classical music, the technical and psychological challenges in performing Strauss, his highlights from the series and the principles of accompanying a singer.

Can you remember your first encounters with classical music?

I have an early memory of a concert at Cheltenham Town Hall when Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony was performed – it was one of my father’s favourite pieces, hence one of his first LPs, together with Beethoven‘s Fifth Symphony and Franck’s Symphonic Variations. But he also loved Gilbert & Sullivan, so my brothers and I who were all choristers were basically brought up on a diet of English Cathedral Music and HMS Pinafore.

I also remember Peter and the Wolf loomed quite large (my favourite bit was the appearance of the wolf out of the forest), as well as the audience songs from Let’s Make an Opera. And I treasured a 78 single of Sousa’s Stars & Stripes played by the Coldstream Guards Band: nowadays my favourite version is Vladimir Horovitz’s – he gives it such an aristocratic swagger, like a Grande Polonaise in 4/4 time.

What was it about Gerald Moore that made you want to follow in his footsteps?

It was when my elder brother Charles (on whom I really learnt the basics of accompanying when we were both in our teens) gave me the first LP of Winterreise, sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with Gerald Moore. I was fascinated by the piano parts, but especially by Gerald’s beautifully judged piano sound and his wonderful sense of rhythm and pace, and I just thought: “I’d love to be able to do that.”

When did you first discover the songs of Richard Strauss?

It was probably when I went to the RCM in 1966. Hubert Dawkes, to whom I’d been assigned for accompaniment, plunged me in at the deep end with the Four Last Songs.  But I also thrilled to songs like Allerseelen, Die Nacht, Ständchen, etc.

Listen to Rebecca Evans singing September, the second of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, with Roger Vignoles. This is part of the eighth and final volume of Strauss songs released by Hyperion and available here

Are the piano parts particularly challenging? When I have seen you play at the Wigmore Hall before they often feel orchestral in concept, as though you are having to voice a whole ensemble.

Strauss’s early songs sound much like Schumann: pianistic in quality and perfect for a domestic soirée. But with Zueignung, the first of his Opus 10 group (his first published songs), there is an unmistakable sea change. It’s as though the Vienna Philharmonic has entered the drawing room, and from then on Strauss never looked back. Challenging?  Indeed, but Strauss also has a wonderful feel for the piano, and with very few exceptions his accompaniments are very grateful to play. Of course there can be a lot of notes to deal with and every now and then he does go completely over the top: Lied an meinem Sohn for instance, which sounds like a cross between Die Walküre and a Tchaikovsky piano concerto and was declared unplayable by Alfred Brendel, no less. It’s wonderfully sung by Christopher Maltman on Volume 4 (listen below):

As it happens thinking orchestrally has always come naturally to me, ever since my time studying with Paul Hamburger, for whom it was axiomatic that all song composers from Schubert onwards have a miniature orchestra in their heads. A couple of years playing Wagner and Strauss at Covent Garden helped cement this approach: many pianists make the mistake with Strauss of learning all the little notes first, but a stint in the opera house teaches you to see the wood for the trees, and as Paul Hamburger would often say, “If you get the gesture right, the little notes will fall into place”.

I should like to add that I owe an enormous amount to Paul, who taught me not only more about piano technique than any “real” pianist I ever worked with, but also about vocal coaching, style, language and poetry (even down to explaining Thomas Hardy to me in his thick Viennes accent).  Quite coincidentally the first song I ever took to him was by Strauss – Schlagende Herzen.

The Strauss series on Hyperion has had a really nice blend of singers new and slightly older, English and European. Was that a deliberate aim?

It wasn’t a deliberate aim, so much as the result of the series having taken twelve years to record, and at each stage looking for artists with the appropriate vocal and musical character for the volume in hand. It also very much reflects the singers whom I already was enjoying working with at any given time.

Do you think that in the Strauss songs we get a different view of him as a composer?

Strauss was naturally a composer of the large gesture, the panoramic sweep, with a distinct tendency to overblown romanticism of the kind that can turn some listeners off.  And of course the opera composer often shines through – there can be no doubt that the 25 years of song-writing that preceded his first operas were the laboratory in which he developed his gift for vocal characterisation.

But in the song format he is obliged to distil his musical ideas to their simplest essence. Just occasionally he doesn’t succeed, but on the many occasions when he does the result can be pure magic.  If I had to give just one example it might be Nachtgang, a tiny love-song of breathtaking tenderness – and unfathomable poignancy (listen below):

‘Accompanist’ feels like a slightly derogatory term for a role that requires such control and artistry. Is it your view that both performers have equal billing in a vocal recital?

It’s not often realised that the Lied or Mélodie is as much a piano art as a vocal one – it’s no accident that Schubert’s Lieder evolved with the early years of the piano – so of course singer and pianist should have equal billing. It is indeed a truly symbiotic partnership. But as for the A-word, I am proud to follow Gerald Moore as an “Unashamed Accompanist”. To me it’s the only term that naturally describes what I and my colleagues do. Nevertheless I can understand those who baulk at its negative associations and prefer the American coinage “collaborative pianist”. Just for the record the billing should of course always read “So-and-So, piano”, never “So-and-so, accompanist”.

What is the most common piece of advice you give to your students on accompanying a singer?

This from Geoffrey Parsons, another mentor: “Always have your own idea of how the song goes, rather than just be a blank canvas for the singer to draw on”.

But two other rules of thumb are useful: “It’s the singer’s job to slow down, the pianist’s to speed up again” and “Balance is as much a function of texture (ie transparency and clarity) as of decibels (as in am I too loud?)”

Is it important to have a personal affinity with the singer you are performing with, as well as a musical one?

It helps of course, especially if you are going on tour together. But I have had many experiences of wonderful music-making on minimal rehearsal, when there was no time at all to find out whether you got on personally offstage.

Are there any composers you have not yet recorded that you are keen to explore?

I love playing Rachmaninov songs (probably for the same reason that I love playing Strauss). And one day I might get round to Schoenberg’s Buch der hängenden Gärten.

If you could recommend a Strauss song to Arcana readers listening for the first time, which one would it be?

So many to choose from…  But for a real out-of-body experience, try Am Ufer, sung exquisitely by Christopher Maltman on Volume 4 (listen below):

Or for a remarkable stream of consciousness, Anne Schwanewilms singing O wärst du mein! on Volume 2 (listen below):

You are a painter as well, looking at Twitter…does music inspire your paintings at any point?

Not precisely: but a friend once told me they thought I painted with the same part of the brain that I play with.  Which is probably true. It is a fact that I have a very visual conception of the music that I play, especially in song where so much of the verbal imagery is itself visual. So in either medium I am playing with light and shade, with colour and texture, and with contrast – perhaps the most important tool in both.

You can read more about Roger Vignoles on his artist page, or click here for his Hyperion discography. With grateful thanks to Hyperion for the provision of highlights from their Strauss series, which are of course (c) Hyperion Records Ltd.