Arcana at the Proms – Prom 35: Martyn Brabbins – Enigma Variations

Idunnu Münch (mezzo-soprano), William Morgan (tenor), Nadine Benjamin (soprano), David Ireland (bass-baritone), English National Opera Chorus, BBC Singers, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins (above)

Various composers Pictured Within: Birthday Variations for M. C. B. (2019, BBC commission: world premiere)
Vaughan Williams Serenade to Music (1938)
Brahms Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny) Op.54 (1871)
Elgar Enigma Variations Op.36 (1899)

Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 13 August 2019

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
Photo credits Chris Christodoulou

You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here

It was clearly a great idea that the BBC commission a piece to mark Martyn Brabbins’s 60th birthday, this concert also being his 36th appearance at these concerts, as well as featuring 14 composers with whom this most stylistically wide-ranging of conductors has been associated.

The result was Pictured Within: Birthday Variations for M.C.B, each composer contributing a variation on an anonymous theme in what is an inverse take on Elgar’s procedure in his own Variations on an Original Theme – whose ground-plan also furnished the formal framework. Space precludes more detailed discussion, though it is worth noting the degree to which these composers (the full list is here) were inhibited or liberated by their placing in the overall scheme. And as this theme yielded its potential more from a harmonic then melodic or rhythmic angle, the most successful made a virtue of such constraints – not least Judith Weir in her engaging 10th variation and John Pickard in a finale, The Art of Beginning, whose deft mingling of portentousness with humour might yet become the springboard for an entirely new venture.

Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music (premiered in this venue – but not at these concerts – 81 years ago) was conceived for 16 solo singers and the choral alternative inevitably loses some of the original’s intimacy, though not the distinctiveness in its setting of lines drawn from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Joining the BBC Singers and members of the ENO Chorus were participants on the Harwood Young Artists programme, of whom Nadine Benjamin brought a wide-eyed wonder to the soprano solos which motivate the latter stages.

Less often heard in the UK, Brahms’s Song of Destiny is among his most ruminative choral works. Its setting of the eponymous poem by Friedrich Hölderlin might be seen as continuing from A German Requiem in its subdued fatalism, albeit with a more animated central section as hints at that starker resignation which overcame the composer in his later years. Brabbins presided over an unforced yet insightful account of a piece that, for its relative unfamiliarity, has garnered numerous distinguished admirers – among them the composer William Walton.

Closing this concert with Elgar’s Enigma Variations made for an effective symmetry as well as bringing the programme full circle. Brabbins is no stranger to the work and duly galvanized the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in a performance which gave full rein to these widely contrasted portraits (never caricatures!) of the composer’s friends while also ensuring an overall unity to the greater design – with the only lengthy pause coming after a luminous account of the ninth Nimrod variation – that carried through to a finale whose elation was shorn of any bombast. There were various delights on the way, not least a winsome take on the fifth variation, with the numerous instrumental solos eloquently taken. Hard to believe Elgar extended that final variation only at the urging of others, so inevitably does this build to its resplendent ending.

Some might have wondered whether building a full Prom around the birthday of its conductor was excessive but, given the regard in which Brabbins is held and the conviction he invested into each of these pieces, that decision was manifestly justified. Many Happy Returns M.C.B!

Martyn Brabbins has recorded Elgar’s Enigma Variations with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra for Hyperion. More details can be found on their website, or on the YouTube clip below:

Wigmore Mondays – Imogen Cooper plays Brahms & Liszt

Imogen Cooper (piano)

Brahms Intermezzi Op.117 nos.1 & 2 (1892) (1:23 – 11:13)
Liszt Gretchen (Second movement of A Faust Symphony) (1854, arranged 1874) (11:52 – 30:05)
Brahms 7 Fantasien Op.116 (1892) (31:31 – 53:24)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 8 July 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood Photo credit: Sim Canetty-Clarke

Brahms’ late piano music occupies a special place in 19th century repertoire. Rather like late Beethoven he makes use of the piano for some extremely confidential writing that starts to push at the boundaries of tonality and conventional rhythm. While Beethoven complemented his late piano works with a renewed inspiration for the string quartet, Brahms found the clarinet was his ideal ‘other’ vehicle in the early 1890s. Yet in the solo piano writing, here is a level of intimacy rarely found in the music of his time.

Imogen Cooper began her Wigmore Hall recital with two of the three late Brahms Intermezzi Op.117 – an example of where the composer would give a deliberately ambiguous title to a short piece, allowing himself the greatest possible freedom of form and expression. That said, the first – in E flat major – is simplicity itself, a much loved melody that Brahms used as consolation from the recent losses in his life. For this he drew inspiration from the Scottish ballad Lady Anne Bothwell’s Lament, and the piece benefits from Imogen Cooper’s unhurried approach in this performance (from 1:23 on the broadcast). The second piece in B flat minor is more flowing but also more directly troubled as it progresses (from 6:37), finishing in the lower recesses of the piano.

Published adjacently to the Op.117 Intermezzi are seven piano pieces Brahms called Fantasies – separate entities that work best as an overall whole. There are three Capriccio pieces, placed 1, 3 and 7 in the group, complemented with 4 Intermezzi, Brahms again keeping ambiguous labels for artistic freedom. Immediately however there is more heart on sleeve here, the first Capriccio in D minor (31:31) full of power and passion. The second piece, an Intermezzo in A minor, turns inwards, lost in thought (33:54), though there are brief glimpses of light in the central section.

The third piece, a Capriccio in G minor (37:42), has grand designs but still glints with a metallic darkness, using a falling melody whose outline is common to a number of late Brahms piano works, falling in melodic intervals of a third. A solemn central section is more hopeful before this music returns at 40:03. The fourth piece (40:55) is the first of three centred on the pitch of E, which seem to exist between major and minor keys. It is quite ambiguous, with a questioning harmony and uncertain rhythm – but finds calmer acceptance in its brief central section.

The fifth piece – another Intermezzo, now in E minor (45:06) is more mysterious still, its rhythm elusive, as though Brahms is in a dream state. Moving to E major for the sixth piece (47:58) we return towards earth, though the composer – and performer – are still in deep thought. A sudden jolt arrives with the final piece, another Capriccio in D minor (50:59), Brahms suddenly alert and on the front foot, and ending unexpectedly – and exultantly – in the major key. It is an ending hard won, but also slightly false, as it proves difficult to erase the deeply profound thoughts from earlier pieces.

The Liszt piece is a long slow movement taken from the composer’s orchestral / choral epic, A Faust Symphony. This is a portrait of Gretchen that transcribes particularly well for piano, Liszt’s gifts adapting his music and that of others between forms at its very best here. This is after all a composer who thought nothing of transcribing all nine Beethoven symphonies for solo piano.

Gretchen is tender and romantic, unfolding from the very start in a loving and flowing manner as played here by Imogen Cooper. Gradually the music becomes deeply passionate, Liszt building towards a series of weighty climaxes – the first around 19:10 and then again at 23:45. It can be heard as almost one unbroken phrase, and Cooper keeps a very natural feel to her phrasing, until the main theme returns at 24:14, where there is a very natural return to the mood and tenderness of the opening – before more extended dialogue. The period from 27:45 represents the coda, where a settled mood takes hold.

Throughout this concert Imogen Cooper let the music do the talking, as she always has done – not playing to the audience but producing beautifully rendered and carefully thought performances, with very impressive technical command – especially in the big-boned Brahms pieces. Of equal importance was her use of ‘rubato’, which is essentially breathing naturally in a musical sense so the rhythms sound more like phrases of a spoken or sung sentence. Everything came together wonderfully here, as it did in an encore of more Brahms – a beautifully observed account of the Waltz in A flat major Op.39/15, not heard on the broadcast.

Further reading and listening

The music in this concert can be heard below, in leading available versions. Imogen Cooper has yet to record late Brahms, so the playlist includes timeless versions of the pieces from Radu Lupu and Emil Gilels, along with Cooper’s recently recorded Liszt:

Cooper’s Liszt is part of an intriguing disc of piano music by Liszt and his contemporary and close relative Wagner, recorded for Chandos:

Another Imogen Cooper recommendation brings together piano music by Robert and Clara Schumann – a family affair with the former’s stormy Piano Sonata no.1 and Humoreske, nicely complemented with two of Clara’s Pièces caractéristiques:

Live review – CBSO / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Honegger, Ravel & Brahms Second Symphony

City of Birmingham Symphony OrchestraMirga Gražinytė-Tyla (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Friday 31 May 2019

Honegger Pastorale d’été (1920)
Ravel Introduction and Allegro (1905); Le tombeau de Couperin (1919)
Brahms Symphony no.2 in D major Op.73 (1877)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Back from their extensive European tour, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and their music director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla returned to home-base with this arresting programme of early 20th-century French music and a classic of the Austro-German symphonic repertoire.

Most understated among curtain-raisers, Honegger’s Pastorale d’été is always a pleasure to encounter and this account had its measure – whether in the evanescent outer sections with their intangible aura, or livelier central episode with its fleeting allusions to Swiss folksong. Gražinytė-Tyla has spoken of her desire to investigate composers ‘off the beaten track’ and Honegger would seem a plausible candidate; such works as the capricious Cello Concerto or anguished Fifth Symphony fairly crying out for reassessment and considered advocacy.

Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro enabled the conductor to take a break while a seven-strong ensemble from the CBSO gave this perfect marriage of formal lucidity and expressive poise; at its most perceptive in the wistful opening music that returns even more hauntingly towards mid-point, with a harp cadenza that Katherine Thomas rendered precisely while delicately. It duly prepared for Le tombeau de Couperin, Ravel’s highly oblique response to the enveloping tragedy of the First World War in an account that defined more fully than usual the character of its middle movements. The astringent irony of the Forlane became more so at Gražinytė-Tyla’s swift tempo, with the Menuet allowed space for its pathos and tenderness to register. If the Prélude and Rigaudon left less of an impression, there was little to fault with either.

After the interval, a performance of Brahms’s Second Symphony that went much of the way towards conveying those passing yet always tangible ambiguities which offset any general equanimity of mood. The opening movement felt not quite the sum of its parts – Gražinytė-Tyla tending to rush headlong into climaxes, and with a curiously indecisive transition into the development as suggested she might still be pondering over that repeat of the exposition. Yet such as the stark transition into the reprise (those granitic harmonies of trombones and tuba really hitting home) then the suffused eloquence of the coda were perfectly achieved, as was the slow movement which here emerged as a more complex amalgam of agitation and resignation than is often the case, not least in those fatalistic intimations towards the close.

Next came a winsome take on the Intermezzo, its pert alternations of elegance and animation deftly while never too knowingly rendered; after which, the finale had energy to spare, if not at the expense of that ambivalence as is made explicit with the mysterious transition into the reprise (a passage of which Mahler could hardly have been unaware). From here Gražinytė-Tyla steered a secure course through to the closing peroration, its exhilaration never risking bombast when emphatic brass chords drove home the prevailing tonality in bracing fashion.

An absorbing performance, then, bolstered by some consistently fine playing from the CBSO. Gražinytė-Tyla returns one final time this season when, in the middle of June, she tackles a piece that has become synonymous with this orchestra – Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.

Further listening

You can hear a playlist of the pieces heard in this concert on Spotify below – none of which appear to be available in recordings made by the CBSO as yet:

Wigmore Mondays – Gould Piano Trio play Kirchner & Brahms

Gould Piano Trio (Lucy Gould (violin), Richard Lester (cello), Benjamin Frith (piano)

Kirchner Excerpts from Bunte Blätter Op.83 (1888) (1:48-16:40 on the broadcast link below)
Brahms Piano Trio no.1 in B major Op.8 (1854, revised 1888) (18:53-54:50)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 13 May 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

It was refreshing to hear the music of Theodor Kirchner in this concert, especially in the context of his friendship with the infinitely better known Johannes Brahms. Kirchner was a friend not just of Brahms but of Robert and Clara Schumann. His relative lack of lasting success is regrettable, due in part it seems to an addiction to gambling, yet his output includes a large amount of piano music. He has notably arranged both Brahms String Sextets for the piano trio combination, which suits his music well.

The Bunte Blätter (Coloured Leaves) is a collection of attractive miniatures that work well in concert, and the Gould Piano Trio chose seven of the twelve available for this concert. The first, Zwiegesang (from 1:48 on the broadcast link), is notable for the sweetly romantic notions of its duet between violin and cello. A Novellette (no.5, 3:49) takes a more playful air, while Mädchenlied (no.10, 6:30) is graceful and open. The Humoreske (no.2, 9:30) is bright, especially from the piano, but the Barcarola (no.7, 10:10) is much less charming than a normal example in this form would be – a real straight-faced affair.

Finally the Scherzino (no.4, 13:15) is a charming affair and the last piece, Abendmusik (14:13) has more obvious, heart on sleeve passion to complete a lovely set of miniatures, beautifully performed.

The short forms contrasted nicely with Brahms’ Piano Trio no.1 in B major Op.8, a much more substantial affair. Lasting 36 minutes in this performance, with a judicious use of repeats in the score, it is one of several powerhouses the composer published early on in his life. He returned to it nearly 35 years after composition, applying some extensive editing to all the movements save the second.

The first few bars (from 18:53) give an immediate impression of Brahms’s scope and ambition – and it is worth bearing in mind that this version is still truncated from what he originally wrote. Richard Lester’s expressive cello melody is beautifully phrased, and the ardent writing is handled with an ideal balance of romance and poise. The aching second theme (21:23) offers a nice contrast, after which the music becomes fraught, before the trio’s entire first section is repeated. Elements of mystery come into the middle section, where Brahms develops his melodic ideas, before a return to the theme brings stability (29:25 onwards). Pianist Benjamin Frith should be praised here for his combination of technical control and full expression.

The second movement, a Scherzo, has a detached theme first heard low down in the register (33:48). Contrasting with this are sweeping contours for the flowing ‘trio’ section, its long phrases responding well to the strings’ unison (36:57), though the tuning is tricky here. There is a lovely blend of light and shade at the end, a respite from the heady music of the first movement.

The slow movement (40:44) is intimate and heartfelt, with some particularly touching moments from the strings, from the cello melody with which it begins. Set in the ‘home’ key of B major, it unfolds with a natural grace, but also hints at the romantic thoughts of the young composer. It is a movement in which to completely lose yourself before the drama of the finale begins at 48:25.

This movement is a little unconventional for its time, Brahms reverting to the minor key in music notable for its stormy passion. Despite the heaviness of texture at times, Frith’s lightness of touch again helps focus the phrasing of the melodies and the substantial counterpoint that underpins them. By the end there is a powerful feeling of a victory hard won, the emphatic closing chords sealing the deal.

Further reading and listening

The music in this concert can be heard here, in the available versions:

The full Kirchner collection of pieces can be heard here:

Meanwhile the original version of the Brahms Piano Trio no.1 can be heard on this album below from Trio Opus 8, seemingly named after the piece itself:

Early Brahms is notable for its stature and heroic passion – and the playlist below brings together some of the works falling into this category, including the Piano Sonatas nos.1 & 3, the String Sextet no.1 in B flat major & the wonderful Serenade no.1 in D major for orchestra:

Live review – Sinfonia Tamesa & Matthew Taylor – Ethel Smyth Serenade & Brahms Third Symphony

Sinfonia Tamesa / Matthew Taylor

St James’s, Sussex Gardens, London
Saturday 9th March 2019

Schumann Genoveva Op.81 – Overture (1850)
Smyth Serenade in D major (1890)
Brahms Symphony no.3 in F major Op.90 (1883)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Now into its eighteenth season, Sinfonia Tamesa has never been an orchestra afraid to ring the changes when it comes to programming. Tonight was no exception, with a rare hearing for Dame Ethel Smyth‘s Serenade to commemorate International Woman’s Day.

Not that this substantial piece proved unworthy of revival on its own merits. Brahms (whom Smyth admired above all others) is the obvious influence here, but Dvořák is equally evident in the rhythmic lilt and deft woodwind writing of its inner movements, an energetic scherzo followed by a hardly less animated intermezzo, and Matthew Taylor secured playing as lithe as it was incisive. He also brought out those expressive contrasts as make up for the opening Allegro’s lack of textural variety and ensured an underlying propulsion that carried the rather repetitious finale on to its decisive close. No major rediscovery, but a likeable and engaging work by a composer who wrote all too little purely orchestral music; should Tamesa choose to schedule Smyth’s masterly Double Concerto for Horn and Violin, then so much the better.

Framing this piece was music by Schumann and Brahms. The former’s only opera, Genoveva was a failure at its premiere and only infrequently revived today, but its melodic appeal helps compensate for some foursquare characterization – the overture making an effective concert item on its own terms. Some shaky intonation robbed the introduction of mystery, but what followed found a viable balance between agitation and an affirmation which (as also in the opera) ultimately wins through – evident here in the surging optimism of those closing bars.

After the interval came Brahms’s Third Symphony, its quiet ending merely one of the reasons why this is the least-often heard of the cycle. From the outset, Taylor secured the right tempo for an opening movement that can easily lose shape and direction; finding winsome charm in the second theme, before judging the development’s relaxation then accruing of momentum with assurance. The coda’s transfigured poise (Brahms’s riposte to Tristan?) carried over into the Andante, whose melodic simplicity belies an emotional ambiguity which was teased out from its ruminative asides before being made explicit in those confiding final pages. Good to hear what followed taken not as an unintentional slow movement, but rather an intermezzo whose pathos is accentuated by its deftly propelled motion. The finale brought a culmination in all respects, and though ensemble faltered during more dynamic passages, a sure impetus was sustained across the reprise (the thrilling modulation into which was tangibly conveyed) then a coda that recalls the work’s initial motto with a mingling of aspiration and benediction.

Make no mistake, this was a convincing and insightful take on a symphony of which such readings are still an exception to the rule. A fine showing, too, for Sinfonia Tamesa, which will return to St James’s on 6th July for a Rachmaninov programme under Matt Andrews.

For further information on Sinfonia Tamesa, visit the orchestra’s website – and for more on Matthew Taylor, click on this link