On record – Nash Ensemble – Julian Anderson: Poetry Nearing Silence (NMC)

Nash Ensemble / Martyn Brabbins

Julian Anderson
Ring Dance (1987) Benjamin Nabarro, Michael Gurevich (violins)
The Bearded Lady (1994) Richard Hosford (clarinet), Ian Brown (piano)
The Colour of Pomegranates (1994) Philippa Davies (alto flute), Ian Brown (piano)
Prayer (2009) Lawrence Power (viola)
Poetry Nearing Silence (1997) Benjamin Nabarro (violin, triangle), Michael Gurevich (violin, triangle), Lawrence Power (viola), Adrian Brendel (cello), Philippa Davies (flute, piccolo), Richard Hosford (clarinet, E-flat clarinet), Hugh Webb (harp)
Another Prayer (2012) Benjamin Nabarro (viola)
Van Gogh Blue (2015) Ian Brown (piano), Graham Mitchell (double bass), Marie Lloyd (clarinet, bass clarinet), Lawrence Power (viola), Adrian Brendel (cello), Philippa Davies (flute, piccolo), Richard Hosford (clarinet, E-flat clarinet), Hugh Webb (harp)

Producer and Engineer David Lefeber
Digital Editing Susanne Stanzeleit

Recorded 1-3 April 2019 at Menuhin Hall, Yehudi Menuhin School, Cobham, Kent

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Back in 2007 NMC released a disc called Book of Hours, a highly enjoyable compendium of the work of Julian Anderson, where smaller-scale music rubbed shoulders with ambitious works like the Symphony and the Book of Hours itself, which combined an ensemble and electronics to fascinating effect.

Poetry Nearing Silence is to all intents and purposes a follow-up release to that Gramophone Award winner, and features the Nash Ensemble and their members in short works by Anderson. They range from solo instrumental pieces to suites for ensemble, written from 1987 to 2015.

What’s the music like?

Concentrated, effective and stimulating. It is great to have such variety within a disc the listener can either dip into or experience in full. Either approach brings dividends.

Ring Dance, for two violins, opens the collection with the instruction that it should ‘be played with unimaginable joy!’ The open string drones with which the piece starts give a penetrating sound, and this approach is consistent with the piece. The instruction with some of the bowing is often to dig in hard near the strings, which gives an extra scratchy timbre. The sound is also striking when the open strings shift up a fifth, accentuating the positive if not always obviously joyful.

The Bearded Lady is next, receiving a tour de force account from clarinetist Richard Hosford and pianist Ian Brown. After the bold opening it becomes more lyrical if still high in its register, defiant yet mournful in its regret at how characters such as the bearded lady – in this case, Baba the Turk from Auden’s The Rake’s Progress – have been portrayed on stage. The uncompromising notes from the piano at the end speak plenty here.

It is surprising not more composers write for alto flute, for the instrument has a really appealing sonority. Anderson writes enchantingly on his nocturne The Colour of Pomegranates, aided by a richly coloured performance from Philippa Davies and Ian Brown, which builds to the sound of tolling bells on the piano and sharper, bird like squawks from the flute. This piece sounds a lot further East than England – and indeed is named after an Armenian film.

Another change of sound brings in the husky viola of Lawrence Power for Prayer, a more recent piece in which Anderson enjoys writing for the instrument he learned briefly in his teens. Here is a reminder that the instrument has a much bigger range than composers often use, grainy in its lower register but with a penetrating line higher up where Anderson capitalises for his melodic material. You might expect Prayer to be a contemplation but this one lets its thoughts unravel and regroup.

After four pieces bringing forward solo instruments, the disc moves to the ensemble number that gave its name. Poetry Nearing Silence is for seven players and runs through eight short movements, where Anderson reacts to the unusual drawings and words therein of Tom Phillips. The crisp chords that open Muse in Rocks or Pebbles or Clouds or Foliage are immediately appealing for their watery colours, and the suite continues to deliver keen illustrations of its subject matter. Anderson writes dreamy lines through Know Vienna, while the intriguing buzzing of a ratchet, played by the second violin, adds mystery to the bigger ensemble number My Future as the Star in a Film of My Room. As the suite progresses Anderson makes keen use of his resources in concentrated, expressive music that charms and impresses in equal measure. Shrill clarinet and gritty strings make notable colours, yet when the piece collapses as the bell tolls in Tall Rain Rattled Over Paris, the music subsides into silence. A dramatic piece well worth returning to.

Another Prayer returns us to solo instruments, this time for violin. It is around the same length as its viola counterpart heard earlier on, and shares some melodic material. It shares its restlessness too, forthright from the start and buzzing with nervous energy. Benjamin Nabarro rises to its challenges comfortably, but also creates a rarefied atmosphere with the harmonics of the central section.

Finally the most substantial piece, Van Gogh Blue, based on the painter’s letters that relish ‘the sheer stuff of which his own art is made’. This is the most obviously expressive piece of the collection, with clarinet-rich sonorities and expansive piano teamed to immediate effect in L’Aube, soleil naissant. Second movement Les Vignobles invokes the dance, while Les Alpilles teems with activity and life, the painter seemingly writing faster than his pen will allow. The clarinets dominate here. Eygalieres is a heat haze, with lovely colours emanating from the suspended chords of the ensemble, expanded by the piano. They create fuzzy yet bright sound worlds. Finally la nuit, peindre les étoiles is more playful, pizzicato violin and clarinet often in cahoots. There is a bigger scope to this movement, the recording playing effectively with perspective as some of the group sound detached and distant, almost bickering in the room next door.  The sparring, completed over solemn piano notes, completes an eventful and compelling piece.

Does it all work?

Yes. It is well worth giving the disc several airings so the works make themselves clear. It will be apparent that Julian Anderson is capable of writing concentrated music that sticks, and that he is incredibly versatile in his writing either for alto flute, viola or even the ratchet. Martyn Brabbins conducts superb accounts of the ensemble pieces, technically fault free in the way the Nash Ensemble tend to be – but also finding the sensitive centre of Van Gogh Blue in the beautifully voiced Eygalieres.

Is it recommended?

Yes, very much so. While Anderson’s orchestral works have rightly enjoyed good exposure of late, the chamber music has tended to drift under the radar. What it needed was a collection like this to push it into the spotlight.

Listen

Buy

You can listen to clips from Poetry Nearing Silence and to purchase a copy at the Presto website here

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:

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: ENO Chorus & Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins – Havergal Brian: The Vision of Cleopatra (Epoch)

Claudia Boyle (soprano); Angharad Lyddon (mezzo); Claudia Huckle (contralto); Peter Auty (tenor) (all soloists in The Vision of Cleopatra), Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera / Martyn Brabbins

Havergal Brian
The Vision of Cleopatra (1907)
For Valour (1904, rev 1906)
Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme (1907)
Two Poems (1912)

Dutton Epoch CDLX 7348 [73’37”]

Producer Alexander Van Ingen
Engineers Dexter Newman, Dillon Gallagher

Recorded July 5-6 2017 at St Jude-on-the-Hill, London
Recorded in association with the Havergal Brian Society

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Martyn Brabbins continues his series of Havergal Brian recordings for Dutton with a notable first – the ‘tragic poem’ The Vision of Cleopatra that is its composer’s largest surviving work from his earlier years, but which went unperformed for 105 years until its revival in Bristol.

What’s the music like?

Premiered at the 1909 Southport Festival, The Vision of Cleopatra enjoyed a passing success but received no further performances. Loss of the orchestral score and parts in the Blitz made revival impossible until 2014, when John Pickard (who writes the informative booklet note) made a new orchestration. The outcome is audacious in the context of British music from this period, taking on board possibilities opened-up by Richard Strauss in his controversial opera Salomé – unheard in the UK until 1910, but whose innovations Brian likely absorbed from the score.

Whatever else (and for all that Gerald Cumberland’s tepid libretto might suggest otherwise), Cleopatra is no anodyne Edwardian morality. After the Slave Dance which functions as a lively overture, the cantata proceeds as a sequence of nominally symphonic movements – a speculative dialogue between two of the queen’s retainers, then an increasingly fervent duet between Cleopatra and Antony followed by an expansive aria for the former; separated by a speculative choral interlude and concluded with a Funeral March of plangent immediacy.

Cleopatra may have fazed its first-night performers, but there is nothing at all tentative about this first recording. Claudia Boyle is sympathetic as Iris and Angharad Lyddon even more so as Charmion, while Peter Auty provides a not unduly histrionic showing as Antony. Although not ideally alluring in the title-role, Claudia Huckle brings eloquence to her climactic aria and throughout fulfils Brian’s exacting requirements. The Chorus of English National Opera sings with real lustre, and Brabbins secures a committed response from the ENO Orchestra.

The concert overture For Valour and Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme had already been recorded (on Naxos), but Brabbins’ teasing out of formal subtlety from expressive panache in the former and binding the latter’s (purposely) unbalanced variations into a cohesive if unwieldy whole ensures a decisive advantage. Setting contrasted poems by Robert Herrick, Two Poems receives its first professional recording: the wan plaintiveness of Requiem for the Rose then sardonic humour of The Hag make for a jarring duality redolent of Bartók’s Two Portraits Op.5.

Does it all work?

For the most part, yes. Uneven in continuity and inspiration, The Vision of Cleopatra contains the most audacious and prophetic music Brian wrote before his opera The Tigers; this account does it justice, even if the highly reverberant ambience entails a marginal lack of immediacy – notably a rather backwardly balanced chorus in its decisive contribution during Cleopatra’s aria. The orchestral playing leaves little to be desired – reinforcing gains in consistency instilled by Brabbins since he became the Music Director of English National Opera two seasons ago.

Is it recommended?

Yes. The Vision of Cleopatra is unlikely to receive regular performance (its demands putting it beyond reach of most choral societies), making this account more valuable for conveying its measure. Perhaps Pickard might follow it up with an orchestration of Brian’s Psalm 137?

You can read more about this release on the Epoch website, or read about The Vision of Cleopatra itself on the Havergal Brian Society website.

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