BBC Proms – Dame Sarah Connolly, BBC SO / Brabbins: Berlioz, Payne & Beethoven

sarah-connolly

Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano, above), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins (below)

Payne Spring’s Shining Wake (1980-81) (Proms premiere)
Berlioz Les nuits d’été Op.7 (1840-41, orch. 1856)
Beethoven
Symphony no.6 in F major Op.68 ‘Pastoral’ (1808)

Royal Albert Hall, London
Friday 13 August 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

A family bereavement meant that Sir Andrew Davis was unable to conduct this Prom, the baton having been taken up by Martyn Brabbins – whose currently in-demand status is a reflection not least of his broad range of musical sympathies and an inherent ability to ‘get things done’.

Not too many conductors would have taken on at relatively short notice a long-unheard piece by the late lamented Anthony Payne then render it with the familiarity of a repertoire staple. Seemingly unheard for 15 years, Spring’s Shining Wake was a breakthrough piece in several respects: the composer fashioning a ‘contemporary’ yet never esoteric idiom, unencumbered by stylistic precedent, as reflected his love of an earlier generation of English music. Delius’s In a Summer Garden is a focal-point in several respects, but what comes over most strongly in its modest scoring (seven wind, one percussionist and strings) is a sense of organic growth from the overtly static formal framework; textures diversifying and intensifying, yet without changing as to their essential features, in music exemplifying the ‘same yet different’ maxim.

From there to the limpid Romanticism of Berlioz’s song-cycle Les nuits d’été is nearer than might be imagined, this latter being notable for its range of expressive nuance despite (even because of) its pervasive restraint. Certainly, there was no uniformity of response from Dame Sarah Connolly – whose whimsical response to Villanelle contrasting with the wide-eyed fantasy of Le spectre de la rose, and becalmed rapture of Sur les lagunes thrown into relief by the fervent heartache of Absence then the spectral imaginings of Au cimetière; itself finding purposeful response in the animated L’île inconnue with its vouchsafing new imaginative realms. Coordination between soloist and orchestra is paramount throughout, and there was no lack of that in a reading as conveyed this music’s potent sensibilities with acute insight.

Nor was there anything routine about Beethoven’s Pastoral after the interval. Readers may remember a cycle of all nine symphonies which Brabbins (above) gave with the Salomon Orchestra just over a decade ago, and his purposeful if never inflexible take on the opening movement left room for its reflective asides and heady flights of fancy. This was no less evident in the Scene by the brook, with its emphasis on seamlessness of transition and unity of content – not least in the way those bird-calls of the coda were integrated into their textural context.

Unfolding with consistency of pulse, the remaining three movements yielded few surprises but no failings. A touch of blandness in the scherzo was duly countered with the immediacy   of the Thunderstorm and its nexus of accrued emotion whose dispersal makes possible the Shepherd’s Song – less cumulative in its eloquence than others have made it, perhaps, but whose inevitability of progress was sustained through to a close of serene poise; underlining the degree to which any trace of ego has been sublimated in the enveloping cosmic dance.

Some elegant and characterful playing from the woodwind of the BBC Symphony Orchestra was a highlight of this performance, a reminder that even a work with a Proms tally running to several dozen never need sound routine when approached with such unaffected reverence.

For further information on the music of Anthony Payne, visit the composer’s website. You can find more information on the BBC Proms at the festival’s homepage

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

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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