On record: BBC Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins – Vaughan Williams: Symphony no.5 & Scenes adapted from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress

*Emily Portman (singer); *Kitty Whatley (mezzo-soprano); *Marcus Farnsworth (baritone), *BBC Singers; *BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

Vaughan Williams
Symphony no.5 in D major (1938-43)
Scenes adapted from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1906)*

Hyperion CDA68325 [66’59”]
English text included
Producer Andrew Keener
Engineer Simon Eadon

Recorded 2 December 2018* & 4-5 November 2019 (Symphony 5), Watford Colosseum, UK

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Martyn Brabbins’s traversal of Vaughan Williams symphonies continues with the Fifth, long the most widely regarded of this cycle, alongside music written for a dramatized production which effectively launched the composer’s lifelong obsession with John Bunyan’s ‘allegory’.

What’s the music like?

Premiered in June 1943, the Fifth Symphony poses a challenge or even provocation through that inwardness all too easily regarded as escapism. A ‘less is more’ concept which Brabbins clearly appreciates – not least in a Preludio as builds incrementally, with little overt rapture going into the radiant second theme or a development understatedly accruing energy, toward a reprise whose climactic restatement of the second theme is (purposely?) less arresting than a coda in which any tonal ambiguity feels the more real for happening almost out of earshot. Easy to skate over, the Scherzo emerges with not a little malevolence in the deftness of its cross-rhythms – the chorale-like aspect of its trio questioning rather than affirming, then the return of the opening music exuding a sardonic quality left unresolved by the spectral close.

That the Romanza is the emotional heart of this work only increases a need for its contrast of moods to be (subtly) underlined. Brabbins achieves exactly so through an adroit interplay of the melodic and harmonic components whose cumulative yet unforced evolution accords the central phase of the movement an encroaching anxiety barely pacified at its culmination, before being more wholly transcended by a coda that is luminous in its simplicity and poise. Often thought unsatisfactory as a formal design, the final Passacaglia seems of a piece with what went before; its theme stated simply while purposefully before the variations build to a resolute central climax – after which, those conflicting elements of negation and affirmation are sublimated into a postlude which reaches out as though at once entreaty and benediction.

As a coupling, Scenes adapted from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress could not be more apposite. Written for a staging at Reigate Priory, the 13 short items unfold well as a continual sequence at the outset of an involvement with Bunyan’s novel that resulted in an evening-length drama 45 years on. Highlights are Emily Portman’s disarming take on the ‘Flower-girl’s song’, ‘The angel’s song’ eloquently rendered by Kitty Whately (her contribution an undoubted highpoint of ENO’s uneven 2012 production), Marcus Farnsworth’s fervour in a setting of Psalm 23 as constitutes the Shepherd’s Song, and lusty response from the BBC Symphony Chorus in The arming of Christian (best known as the hymn To be a Pilgrim) then a rapturous Final scene music which also serves as reminder that VW’s Tallis Fantasia was merely four years hence.

Does it all work?

It does. Brabbins’s Fifth may not be the most fervent or powerful but has the work’s measure as a cohesive and integrated entity. The Pilgrim’s Progress ‘Scenes’ makes for a fascinating comparison with subsequent versions in VW’s decades-long quest for a satisfying realization.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound is on a par with previous instalments in its clarity and realism, and Robert Matthew-Walker’s booklet note expertly clears up any uncertainty over the genesis of VW’s Bunyan-related projects. Those remaining symphonies will hopefully 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 – Victoria Borisova-Ollas: Angelus (BIS)

Victoria Borisova-Ollas
Angelus (2008)
The Kingdom of Silence (2003)
Before the Mountains Were Born (2005)
Creation of the Hymn (2013)
Open Ground (2006)

Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra / Andrey Boreyko (Angelus), Martyn Brabbins (The Kingdom of Silence, Before the Mountains Were Born), Sakari Oramo (Open Ground)

BIS BIS2288 SACD [82’08”]

Producers Thore Brinkmann, Ingo Petry
Engineers Marion Schwebel, Matthias Spitzbarth

Recorded August 2016 (Open Ground), November 2017 (Angelus), August 2019 (The Kingdom of Silence, Before the Mountains Were Born) in Stockholm Concert Hall

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

BIS issues what is only the second release dedicated to the music of Victoria Borisova-Ollas (b1969), Vladivostok-born and resident in Sweden for almost three decades, superbly played by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and sumptuously recorded in Stockholm Concert Hall.

What’s the music like?

UK audiences have had few opportunities to hear Borisova-Ollas, but her piece Wings of the Wind was second at the Masterprize International Music Competition in 1998, and her multi-media drama The Ground Beneath Her Feet was premiered at the Manchester International Festival in 2007. Her orchestral writing is confident and assured – drawing on a lineage that takes in such as Rimsky, Glière and Respighi in music which is never less than evocative or atmospheric, but lacks greater expressive focus so as to convey a more arresting personality.

An in memoriam to her teacher Nikolai Korndorf, The Kingdom of Silence duly proceeds as the ‘journey of a life’ from beatific stasis, through episodes of angst and decisiveness, and on to a serene if underwhelming catharsis. More distinctive is Before the Mountains Were Born, the third of this composer’s works to draw inspiration from the Psalms (here No. 94 – ‘Lord, you have been our dwelling place’) and whose supplicatory yearning informs a cadenza-like passage for the four principal woodwind prior to a decidedly unexpected close.

The nearest thing here to a showpiece, Open Ground picks up on American minimalist traits in its swift and unrelenting while highly eventful progress to a tellingly evanescent conclusion: a tale of reality and stability which could yet find favour with orchestras on both sides of the Atlantic.

Most expansive is Angelus, inspired by a visit to Munich and the sheer range of bell-sounds to be heard there – the result being a ‘morning to evening’ evolution where elements of chant and tintinnabulation are prominent within a texture of lingering and iridescent sonority such as enfolds the senses without engaging the intellect. Moreover, the accumulation of incident toward its centre lacks underlying emotional intensification, or the organ-capped climax any semblance of tension and release. More substantial is Creation of the Hymn – a sequence of variations, on an original theme of some trenchancy, originally written for string quartet and reworked for 15 strings. A range of stylistic associations is evoked, but the astute dovetailing of expressive contrasts and purposeful follow-through to a fervent ending holds the attention.

Does it all work?

Whatever else, this music is certainly good as regards first impressions. Dig deeper, however, and lack of substance in the actual ideas and way by which these generate the larger content is hard to deny – for all that the aural enticement of the orchestration cannot be gainsaid. Nor is there any lack of commitment from the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, guided by Messrs Boreyko, Brabbins and Oramo to performances of real virtuosity. Those who already have the earlier disc of Borisova-Ollas’s orchestral music on Phono Suecia will certainly want this too.

Is it recommended?

Yes, with reservations. Wide-ranging sound is on a par with BIS’s customary high standards, while the composer’s annotations are quirky but informative. Hopefully releases of Borisova-Ollas’s chamber and instrumental work will emerge to open-out the perspective on her music.

Listen & Buy

You can listen to clips from the recording and purchase, either in physical or digital form, at the BIS website

Spotify

On record – Nash Ensemble – John Pickard: The Gardener of Aleppo (BIS)

John Pickard
The Gardner of Aleppo (2016)
Daughters of Zion (2016)*
Snowbound (2010)
Serenata Concertata (1984)**
Three Chicken Studies (2008)
The Phagotus of Afranio (1992)
Ghost-Train (2016)

*Susan Bickley (mezzo); **Philippa Davies (flute); Nash Ensemble / Martyn Brabbins

BIS BIS 2461 SACD [79’22”]

Producer / Engineer Simon Fox-Gál

Recorded September 2018 at All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

BIS continues its coverage of music by John Pickard (b. 1963) with an extensive overview of chamber works surveying more than three decades of creativity, in performances by the Nash Ensemble that do ample justice to this composer’s combative while always accessible music.

What’s the music like?

Earliest is Serenata Concertata, written when Pickard was still an undergraduate and his first paid commission. Essentially a concerto for flute and five instruments, it unfolds continuously from a haunting Cadenza I then a pensive Aria I to the Scherzo-Notturno whose accrued energy carries over into the climactic Cadenza II, before Aria II brings an emotional poise that gradually dies away towards the close. Whatever its passing influences, Pickardian traits are everywhere apparent and the composer was surely right to keep this work in his catalogue.

Philippa Davies makes a fine showing, as does Ursula Leveaux in The Phagotus of Afranio – the title that of a fanciful forerunner of the bassoon, whose Hoffnung-like presence evinces humour and no little pathos in this entertaining ‘capriccio’. Hardly less diverting, the Three Chicken Studies evoke its subjects respectively laying, feeding then fighting in miniatures, as rendered by Gareth Hulse, both winsome and insouciant (and fully deserving of inclusion in Pickard’s catalogue). Alone among these pieces, Snowbound has been previously recorded (Toccata Classics) – the new account being more spacious and more graphic in its depiction of a familiar landscape as rendered unrecognizable through music that cannily emphasizes those darker sonorities of bass clarinet, cello and piano on route to a ‘glacial’ denouement.

The remaining three works followed in the wake of the imposing Fifth Symphony and testify to the variety of Pickard’s approach irrespective of genre or instrumentation. Setting a text by Gavin D’Costa, Daughters of Zion relates the fateful decision of Mary and its consequences in music by turns ominous and plangent – superbly sung by Susan Bickley. No less resonant in emotional impact, The Gardner of Aleppo was inspired by an incident in the Syrian civil war, where a flower-seller continued to ply his wares in the face of heavy bombardment up until his untimely death. Here, too, flute, viola and harp make for a (surprisingly?) tensile combination across its trajectory of evocation, animation and recollection. By comparison, Ghost-Train might appear humorous in its (often graphic) portrayal of the once obligatory fairground ride; as represented by a perpetuum mobile whose stealthy refrain finds contrast with sundry episodes of a more or less grotesque nature, duly culminating in an apotheosis whose sombre equivocation suggests this to be a journey from which there can be no return.

Does it all work?

Yes, given the alacrity with which these musicians respond to music that, for all its textural and harmonic intricacy, conveys that expressive immediacy manifest throughout Pickard’s output. By so doing, moreover, the stylistic consistency of his idiom is no less in evidence.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Sound is well up to BIS’s customary standards as to clarity and perspective, with the composer’s booklet note typical in its keen observation and wry humour. Further releases of Pickard’s music, not least his first three symphonies, will hopefully follow from this source.

Listen

Buy

You can discover more about this release at the BIS website, where you can also purchase the recording.

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 – 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