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

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Tony Winter on the BBC National Orchestra of Wales playing Vaughan Williams, Parry & Holst

For the latest in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series Tony Winter gives his verdict on the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and their Prom of English music.

Prom 17: Tai Murray  (violin), Francesca Chiejina (soprano), Ashley Riches (bass-baritone),  BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales / Martyn Brabbins

Parry Symphony no.5 in B minor (Symphonic Fantasia ‘1912’) (1912)
Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending (1914, rev 1920)
Parry Hear my words, ye people (1895)
Holst Ode to Death, Op.38 (1919)
Vaughan Williams A Pastoral Symphony (Symphony no.3) (1921)

Royal Albert Hall, Friday 27 July 2017

You can watch this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

ARCANA: Tony, how would you describe your musical upbringing?

I had a brief encounter with the violin which I never really got on with – I didn’t get on with the teacher – and then when I was about 13 the guitar, but that was rock music. I played the guitar for years. When I retire it’s going to come out again! I played in a band called The Committee, but to be fair by the time they’d risen to fame they’d chucked me out!

Name three musical acts you love and why:

I love Bach, just because of the melodies. I think you can look at other people and say the orchestration is great but for me the genius is the melody. James Rhodes says ‘the immortal Bach’, which sums it up.

I’ve been playing a lot of David Bowie recently with his demise, I was a big fan of Bowie up to about the Let’s Dance era, and now suddenly I’ve been playing some of the later albums as I’ve been guilty of overlooking some of them. I don’t like it when it gets too commercial! But I think later on he was saying that he didn’t give a shit, which is an approach I’ve always liked. The Outside album was described as ‘difficult and industrial’ but I think it’s great. I wonder in 200 years if people will be playing Bowie? He died at the same age as Shostakovich but who knows? Only time will tell. How many people were on stage tonight, over 100? I’m sure everyone would be using that if there weren’t cost implications to it!

I don’t know whether to say the Rolling Stones or Mozart for the third!

Have you been to classical music concerts before, and if so what has been your experience?

I’ve been to a few over the years – I’ve even started going to a few operas! Living close to the Watford Coliseum I’ve been going to concerts there as I’m a bit of a lazy bugger. I tend to go to any classical concerts they put on there. I’ve seen Beethoven’s 9th, that was a bit echoey. James Rhodes sticks in the mind for his more modern presentation which particularly appealed to my kids. They’re learning the piano so that helped but it helped that he stood up and made a few jokes. I’m not saying everyone has to turn into a variety act but he judged it right. I like sitting at the front in an intimate gig, but coming here tonight though I think I should drag my sorry arse into London more as I don’t think you could fit that orchestra on the stage in Watford!

Can you give a snapshot of the music you’ve been listening to in the past week?

Yesterday I was going through making a playlist for stuff we’re going to play on holiday when we’re driving in the car. I found something on Tidal called ‘Music Your Kids Like That Won’t Drive You Crazy’ but we were doing one of our own. We had a couple of Michael Jackson tracks – Thriller, Pretty Young Thing (there’s some good grunting on that!) My daughter jumps up and down on the sofa to it.

I stuck on some David Bowie because my wife wanted Adam Ant – Stand And Deliver – and the video put me in mind of Ashes To Ashes – which then made me think of Life Is Lost, which refers back to that song. Bowie was brilliant at referring back to things from years before. We had A-ha, Earth, Wind and Fire – an ever-growing playlist!

Apart from that I’ve been playing Daniel Barenboim’s recording of the Bach Well-Tempered Clavier at work. It’s my fallback and I put it on when it all gets a bit too much for me!

What did you think of tonight’s Prom?

I thought it was excellent! Parry I know absolutely nothing about. With Holst I know the proverbial Planets but nothing at all about the piece we heard tonight, and Vaughan Williams I’m very familiar with. I’m a huge fan anyway, and think his music is absolutely sublime, but it also comes from being a massive fan of The Fast Show – with Ralph and Ted! A friend of mine used to say ‘rural cowpat music’, which is not my take on it but there you go. I do think it is reminiscent of a lost England – not even John Major’s Middle England, an England before that – and certainly not Theresa May’s Brexit idiot England that we have now. We’re getting a bit political here!

What did you think of the Parry’s Fifth Symphony?

I thought it was a bit short – that’s not a symphony! I was quite impressed with it, and some of it was reminiscent of Carnival of the Animals for me, some of the slow bits in the score. I’m not at all familiar with it but I did enjoy it.

Which of the pieces left the most impression tonight?

It’s the one I am most familiar with – which is The Lark Ascending. The soloist (Tai Murray) was fabulous and it is one of my favourite pieces anyway, I just love it. It’s like the pop concert where the Rolling Stones do Satisfaction I think!

How would you describe your experience in the Arena tonight?

It was great. I love standing up in there, I think it’s more rock ‘n’ roll, you can move to the front. Someone came and stood in front of us in the first half but there you are! I really enjoyed it.

Verdict: SUCCESS