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

Prom 17 – BBC NoW & Martyn Brabbins: Vaughan Williams ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, Parry Symphony no.5 & Holst

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 2018

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood Photos of Martyn Brabbins and Tai Murray (c) BBC/Mark Allan

You can watch this Prom on BBC4 on Sunday 22 July here

This was a fascinating concert, a celebration of Sir Hubert Parry both in his music and the work of his pupils.

Parry – composer of the music to Jerusalem and royal anthem I Was Glad for many of us – wrote five symphonies, and it is bordering on ridiculous that only one of them, the Symphony no.5 in B minor, has been heard at the Proms before. Hopefully this excellent performance from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Martyn Brabbins will open the door to further hearings, for it presented the piece as an extremely coherent stream of consciousness.

With its Schumann-like dimensions, the Fifth flows for 27 minutes unabated, and is almost constantly melodic, its themes and motives passed through the instruments. There were some lovely moments of clarity in the first movement where a certain English splendour came through, whereas elsewhere Parry was in thrall to Richard Strauss and his hero Brahms without ever slipping into parody.

The programmatic nature of the piece is revealed in the titles of its movements (Stress, Love, Play and Now) and Brabbins shaped his response accordingly, lovingly tendering the phrases but enjoying the more adventurous and colourful aspects of the score.

The rapt stillness of Vaughan WilliamsA Lark Ascending followed, in which the audience were immediately relocated to the stillness of an English field to witness the freedom of the lark as its song spiralled upwards. Tai Murray (above) was the violinist inhabiting its character, and she allowed the music all the room it needed. Brabbins enjoying the softly burnished strings – some beautiful shading from the BBC Welsh – before the slightly more playful and folksy central section took hold. Her encore, a gravity defying account of Ruggiero Ricci’s arrangement of Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra, felt a little misplaced but was played with exceptional athleticism and virtuosity.

There was more music from Vaughan Williams’ teacher Parry after the interval, in celebratory festival mood for Hear my words, ye people. This presented a couple of tricky performance issues, with the soloists Francesca Chiejina (below) and Ashley Riches just in front of Sir Henry Wood’s bust at the back of the stage, with a 120-strong choir behind them. To the side were the brass of the BBC Welsh – but all gelled together in classic Anglican exultation, nicely held together by organist Adrian Partington, who delivered sensitive registrations on the Royal Albert Hall organ.

Parry’s celebrations were checked by a polar opposite in a work from another of his pupils, Holst’s Ode to Death – a choral setting of Walt Whitman. This left an incredibly powerful impact in an understated way, leaving us mindful of the First World War – to which the piece responds. The best Holst music takes its listener to the brink of another world and this was another such occasion, Brabbins overseeing a performance of subtlety and beauty but uncertainty too, especially when the composer’s oblique harmonies and silvery orchestration were at work. As in the Parry, the BBC National Chorus of Wales were superb.

Vaughan Williams invested heavily in the First World War, not from a position of overwrought patriotism but from a sense of duty to his country. What he saw as an ambulance driver in France in 1916 is not fully documented, but it left a lasting impression fully realised in A Pastoral Symphony, his third – following musical depictions of the Sea (no.1) and London (no.2).

While ostensibly a peaceful work, there are hints around the edges that its composer is struggling to come to terms with peace in the wake of such a terrible conflict. Martyn Brabbins felt this too, and brought from the orchestra some beautifully judged phrasing, colourful textures and eloquent playing, none more so than Neil Brough‘s exquisite off-stage trumpet solo in the second movement.

Everything was headed for the appearance of soprano Chiejina at the height of the fourth movement, and the balance was ideal as her wordless vocalise sounded from on high – a touch too much vibrato for my taste, but leaving a strong impact nonetheless. In our uncertain times now, we would do well to heed Vaughan Williams’ subtle but incredibly powerful warning of the consequences of war.

On record: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins – Sir Michael Tippett: Symphonies nos. 1 & 2 (Hyperion)

Tippett Symphonies nos. 1 & 2 BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

Tippett
Symphony no.1 (1944-5)
Symphony no.2 (1956-7)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

A new recording of Michael Tippett’s symphonies, following on from those by Colin DavisGeorg Solti (Decca, 1968-81) and Richard Hickox (Chandos, 1992-4) was sorely needed, and with his prowess in British music Martyn Brabbins would seem well placed to provide it.

Having begun his cycle of Vaughan Williams symphonies, Brabbins now embarks on those of Tippett, whose reputation seems to be on the ascent given the inevitable decline after his death in 1998. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra may not have had a close association with this music, though the fact each of these recordings was preceded by a live performance at least ensure what is heard here are those interpretations intended by Brabbins rather than merely a run-through that comprises studio takes methodically assembled in post-production.

What’s the music like?

In the First Symphony, informed by the tragedies of war and personal loss, Brabbins handles the initial Allegro’s bracing polyphonic discourse with assurance – less unyielding than Colin Davis if not quite evincing the forward resolve of Richard Hickox. The exposition’s motivic elements are precisely individuated then vividly contrasted in the development, though there could have been greater intensity during the reprise before it reaches stasis in the coda. The Adagio is the highlight here, a passacaglia afforded focus by the expressive contrasts of its variations and cohesion by their near-symmetrical trajectory. Slower then either of his rivals, Brabbins secures greater momentum so that the sombre augmentation of the theme caps this sombre movement overall. The scherzo’s outer sections have the right rhythmic buoyancy, even if its songful trio is a little reticent, and while the twin subjects of the finale’s double-fugue are well delineated, the transition into the reprise lacks impetus; the climactic ‘stretto’ less potent than its disintegration in the coda, though this is likely what Tippett intended.

This remains a frequently impressive account, with that of the more wide-ranging Second Symphony only marginally less so. Its opening Allegro is the finest on disc – more flexible than Davis and less stolid than Hickox, while generating kinetic energy in the development and truly Beethovenian coda. If the Adagio feels less convincing, this is not through lack of insight on Brabbins’s part or finesse on that of the BBCSSO but rather a sense that the ideas in its mosaic-like construction are being juxtaposed without admitting that greater eloquence Hickox finds at a slower tempo and Tippett himself (NMC) conveys to rapturous effect. The scherzo is disappointing as, for all the wealth of detail uncovered, the underlying tempo is too staid for momentum to accrue so the climax feels less Dionysian than merely incisive. Some might also consider the finale too steady, yet Brabbins succeeds more than those before him in knitting the four parts of this fantasia-like sequence into an organic process of continuous variation through to a coda as brings the work forcefully but never overbearingly full-circle.

Does it all work?

Most of the time. As recorded in Glasgow’s City Halls, the orchestral sound has clarity and lustre well in advance of those earlier readings, even if the acerbities of Tippett’s scoring can seem a little too well-blended (the balance of trumpets in the outer movements of the Second Symphony being a case in point), hence a relatively high playback level is preferable. Oliver Soden’s annotations are informed and informative, though not free of occasional tautologies or affectations that one hopes will not feature in his forthcoming biography of the composer.

Is it recommended?

Yes. Whatever their difficulties in execution, the intrinsic musical qualities of Tippett’s symphonies cannot be doubted and this first instalment augurs well for the rest of the cycle. Nos. 3 and 4, as well as the early Symphony in B flat, are due from Hyperion later this year.

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: BBC Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins – Vaughan Williams: A London Symphony (Hyperion)

Elizabeth Watts, Mary Bevan (sopranos), Kitty Whatley (mezzo-soprano), Royal College of Music Brass Band (Variations), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

Vaughan Williams
Symphony no.2, ‘A London Symphony’ (1918 version)
Sound sleep (1903)
Orpheus with his lute (1901/3)
Variations (1957)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Following on from discs devoted to Elgar and Walton, Martyn Brabbins conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in this first instalment of his Vaughan Williams cycle, coupled with three relatively little-heard pieces from either end of the composer’s lengthy creative span.

What’s the music like?

Significantly, Brabbins has chosen the ‘second version’ of A London Symphony as revised in 1918 and published in 1920. Closer in its formal proportions to the streamlined 1933 revision than the expansive 1913 original, this features additional passages in the second and fourth movements, but it is the textural richness and subtlety which comes through most strongly in this account – among the most overtly alluring yet recorded. Rarely has Vaughan Williams’s later bemusement as to how he achieved such beauty of sound in this piece felt more apposite.

Beginning barely perceptibly, the opening movement unfolds from hazy evocation to one of London ‘in full swing’ and Brabbins captures such a progression unerringly – as he does that of the central interlude with its enfolding calm and opening-out of emotional space prior to a resumption of the earlier activity then a coda whose imposing rhetoric is never overbearing. Even finer is the ensuing Lento, outwardly a depiction of Bloomsbury Square one November afternoon though more pressingly a meditation on time and place which builds to climaxes of sustained expressive intensity. Brabbins gauges these superbly, then draws the extra material found in the coda into a seamless continuity of serene recollection. Rarely, moreover, have the numerous woodwind and string solos been rendered with such felicity as by the BBCSO.

A scherzo designated ‘nocturne’ might present problems of characterization and pacing, but neither is an issue here – Brabbins opting for a relaxed though never sluggish tempo such as underlines that teasing reticence to the fore in the fatalistic coda. The finale follows on with due inevitability – its heartfelt initial ‘cry’ launching a movement whose sectional unfolding feels more than usually cohesive as it takes in halting processional and forthright march on the way to a culmination where anguish and that sense of teetering on the brink are palpably conveyed. Brabbins takes his time in the ‘Epilogue’, slightly more extended than it became while evincing that steady emergence from anxiety to affirmation as brings the whole work affectingly full circle. Rarely have these closing pages conveyed so much of a benediction.

Does it all work?

Absolutely, and the fill-ups are a further enhancement. Heard in its version for three female voices, the setting of Christina Rosetti’s Sound sleep audibly anticipates Serenade to Music almost four decades hence – with Elizabeth Watts no less touching in that of Shakespeare’s Orpheus with his lute likely written for a staging of Henry VIII. Almost Vaughan Williams’s last completed work, Variations is better known as orchestrated by Gordon Jacob – though its intricately intertwined sections and final chorale are thrown into starker relief by brass band.

Is it recommended?

Indeed – not least when the sound has ideal spaciousness and definition, along with probing annotations by Robert Matthew-Walker. Fine as was Martin Yates’s recent account (Dutton), that from Brabbins is undoubtedly the recording of the ‘1920 London Symphony’ to go for.

For further information on this release, visit the Hyperion website, or the BBC Symphony Orchestra. You can also read more about Martyn Brabbins here