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

Wigmore Mondays – English Songs with Marcus Farnsworth & Joseph Middleton

farnsworth-middleton

Marcus Farnsworth (baritone), Joseph Middleton (piano)

Wigmore Hall, London, 28 March 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b074zd45

Available until 27 April

What’s the music?

Purcell, arr. Britten – Music for a while; Fairest Isle (1945); Not all my torments (1943); Evening Hymn (1945) (13 minutes)

Ireland: Sea Fever; If there were dreams to sell; When I am dead my dearest; The bells of San Marie (9 minutes)

Finzi: Let us Garlands Bring (1929-1942) (15 minutes)

Trad, arr. Britten: The Salley Gardens (1940); Sally in our Alley (1959); The Plough Boy (1945) (9 minutes)

Spotify

Unfortunately not all the music performed is available on Spotify. There is however a playlist containing as many of the English songs performed as I could find:

About the music

A far-reaching program of English song, with old and new united through the thread of arrangements by Benjamin Britten – and in the middle some of the best early 20th century vocal writing from England.

Britten ‘realized’ a total of 42 vocal works by Purcell for voice and piano. That effectively means he gave them a new set of clothes, providing a new piano part for concert performance. This was done to give his recitals with Peter Pears more options, to remind their audience of Purcell’s standing, and for Britten to express his sheer admiration of the composer in musical form. These four examples illustrate how he was able to do this while keeping the essential mood of the Purcell originals.

Meanwhile in the 1930s Britten had already set out his position on folksongs. He was averse to Vaughan Williams’ treatment of them – in accordance with his teacher Frank Bridge – but aligned himself more readily with figures like Moeran, with whom he spent some time playing folksong arrangements, and Percy Grainger, who he and Peter Pears greatly admired. These three selections represent some of his best-loved arrangements.

The 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death is marked by Gerald Finzi’s song cycle Let us Garlands Bring, a cycle of five songs the composer dedicated to Vaughan Williams. Finzi eventually arranged them for baritone and string orchestra, but this is the original version.

John Ireland, meanwhile, was a restless composer prominent in the early decades of the 20th century. His songs are an important part of his output, as well as chamber music, bittersweet orchestral music and a wonderful piano output containing some delectable miniatures. The vocal selection here includes arguably his best-loved song, Sea Fever.

Performance verdict

Marcus Farnsworth stepped in at the last minute to give this concert, and it seems to have been a winner. Arcana was not in the hall but his ability to stick with the original program was impressive, and the selection of English song is a clever and logical one.

Of this selection it is perhaps the Finzi that stands out as the most rewarding, a satisfying and extremely enjoyable cycle, but the Ireland songs – as always – leave a haunting impression.

Britten’s mining of his country’s musical archive for his own performing means is also very interesting to hear, and Farnsworth sings his arrangements with great clarity and poise. Joseph Middleton is a most able pianist alongside.

What should I listen out for?

Purcell, realized Britten

1:43 – Music for a While (words by John Dryden) It can take a little while to adjust to the idea of hearing Purcell’s music through Britten’s eyes. While his piano accompaniments are unobtrusive they are still recognisably his in the way the chords are spread. The piano often shadows the vocal line. There is then a real vocal emphasis on the way ‘the snakes drop from her head’ and ‘the whip from out her hands’

5:30 – Fairest Isle (Dryden) A grander setting, this, and the piano takes more of a back seat to the grand vocal line – though it does still offer complementary melodies.

7:45 – If all my torments (Anon) The piano and singer take a noticeably darker colour for this recitative, and the vocal line is almost completely free, the piano supplying just the basic outline of the harmonies. Farnsworth uses very little vibrato to enhance the despair of the song.

10:51 – Evening Hymn (Bishop William Fuller) After the despair of the previous song comes the consoling Evening Hymn, a period of repose at the end of the day. Again the piano is complementary rather than obtrusive, Britten making sure the voice projects very easily. The song ends with an expansive ‘Alleluia’

Ireland

16:44 Sea Fever (John Masefield) – one of Ireland’s most celebrated songs. It is ideal for the baritone, with a rich, resonant beginning and a vivid description of the ‘grey mist on the sea’s face’, at which point the piano goes quiet.

19:00 If there were dreams to sell (Thomas Lovell Beddoes) – Ireland’s music frequently explores the darker side, but this song is one of his most positive. The baritone has a yearning tone for much of the song, though reaches a fervent peak half way through.

20:59 When I am dead my dearest (Christina Rosetti) – despite its title the theme here is one of resignation rather than anything particularly morbid. The upper part of the baritone register is used.

22:54 The bells of San Marie (Masefield) – a slightly wistful but generally positive song, with a lilt to the piano part that gives it a folksy edge.

Finzi

26:37 – Come Away, Come Away, Death (from Twelfth Night) Finzi’s craft as a word setter is immediately evident in this song, which has a distinctive melody and is also laced with romance.

29:48 – Who is Silvia? (from The Two Gentlemen of Verona) – Who is Silvia, what is she? asks the baritone with a full voice. Finzi gives the piano a wandering counterpoint to the vocal melody. It is a celebratory song, especially when the words ‘to her let us garlands bring’ are sung.

31:20 – Fear No More The Heat o’ the Sun (from Cymbeline) – a flatter and lower beginning for the singer here, though this slower song grows gradually. There is a particularly heady piano interlude in the middle, where the harmonies are spicy and chromatic, before the final stanza, where the composer’s musings on death are fully revealed in power and emotion.

36:40 – O Mistress Mine (from Twelfth Night) – a much lighter outlook after Finzi’s contemplation of death, this is a perky song more preoccupied with youthful love.

38:33 – It Was a Lover and His Lass (from As You Like It) – another more energetic, ‘outdoor’ song, where Finzi celebrates the spring along with Shakespeare, in the company of his two lovers.

Trad, arr Britten

42:21 – The Salley Gardens (W.B. Yeats) – this is sung by Marcus Farnsworth at a lower pitch (D) than the one Britten arranged it in (F#) It is a plaintive and rather sad song.

45:01 – Sally in our Alley (Henry Carey) – one of Britten’s earliest folksong arrangements, this is a charming rendition of a romantic song. Farnsworth sings in A major rather than Britten’s arranged D.

49:13 – The Plough Boy (Anon) – the charming and rather quirky setting is an immediate winner thanks to the piano introduction, but the baritone’s clipped delivery is also a winner!

Encore

52:18 – the encore is Britten’s setting of I wonder as I wander (John Jacob Niles) which is an extremely moving experience when heard live. The piano does not play with the vocalist but is alongside, allowing the melody to be heard on its own.

Further listening

English song is a maligned but very enjoyable musical area – and arguably the best people to take us through it are the tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Julius Drake. Here is their album The English Songbook: