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

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