BBC Proms – Sayaka Shoji, RPO / Petrenko: Vaughan Williams, Respighi & Mendelssohn

vasily-petrenko

Sayaka Shoji (violin, below), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasily Petrenko (above)

Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910)
Respighi
Concerto gregoriano (1921)
Mendelssohn
Symphony no.5 in D minor Op.107 (1830)

Royal Albert Hall, London
Wednesday 4 August 2021

Written by Ben Hogwood

A fascinating concert, notable on several counts. It marked the first Prom for Vasily Petrenko, recently transferred from Liverpool, in his new role as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s music director. It featured three works paying tribute to a distant musical past – Vaughan Williams, Respighi and Mendelssohn expressing their admiration in very different ways. By way of an aside, it was your correspondent’s first live music in 17 months. A happy experience indeed!

In a sense my ears were in alignment with those who would have been at Gloucester Cathedral on 6 September 1910, for the world premiere of Vaughan WilliamsFantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis. The Royal Albert Hall, in its current reduced capacity, offered a similar acoustic, suitable for a performance where the quietest statements could be clearly heard. In the wake of a pandemic, this was wholly appropriate music to be listening to.

The Fantasia is written for two string orchestras, the second of which, nine players strong, might normally be distributed high in the gallery. Here they were positioned on stage, upper left from the conductor’s viewpoint, and projected beautifully to the back of the arena. Petrenko did not linger over the serenity of the opening, but allowed Vaughan Williams’ invention plenty of space to breathe as the Fantasia formed. A sensitive audience ensured every little nuance could be heard, and the RPO strings – in particular the solo quartet within the main orchestra – played beautifully. Petrenko has recorded a good deal of Elgar with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, so it will be interesting to see if he decides to look at Vaughan Williams in equivalent detail.

There followed a Proms premiere of a work written 100 years ago. As David Gutman’s excellent programme footnotes pointed out, Respighi has not enjoyed good representation at the festival over the years, and in general his music still languishes in the repertoire. This first account of the Concerto gregoriano could hardly have been more persuasive, with a passionate advocate in violin soloist Sayaka Shoji, who quarantined on her arrival in the UK prior to this performance. Respighi was a violinist, writing with skill for the instrument, but chose not to use this concerto as a display piece. Rather he paid homage to the Gregorian chants with which he had had been preoccupied in recent years, and he used these as the basis for a piece containing some particularly lush harmonies and idiosyncratic rhythms.

This was a compelling performance, Shoji soon into her groove and leading with faultless intonation in the high passages of the slow movement, carrying beautifully into the wide open spaces of the hall. She was aided by the horns and trombones of the RPO, positioned along the back of the orchestra, the punctuation of harp and celesta adding glitter to the edge of the sound.

The first movement found nicely judged contributions from oboe (John Roberts) and cor anglais (Patrick Flanaghan), with a sheen from the strings not unlike that of the Vaughan Williams. The third movement presented faster music and a greater sense of drama from its main theme, the brass again involved. This pulled back to peaceful climes, and a recap of the second movement material. Concerto gregoriano was certainly a work benefiting from a live performance, deserving of a higher profile.

Shoji was a sensitive performer, allowing Respighi’s music star billing, a sign of her maturity as a soloist. She also chose a wholly appropriate encore, the soft pizzicato beginning the Sarabande from Ysaÿe’s Sonata for solo violin no.4 (À Fritz Kreisler) the only audible noise in a rapt hall.

Mendelssohn wrote his Reformation symphony in 1830, making it the second in his output chronologically, but it was not published until long after his death. He appears not to have been wholly satisfied with it, leaving it unperformed. It carries a powerful impact, anticipating Schumann’s own D minor symphony (no.4) while including the Lutheran chorale Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (A mighty fortress is our God). In this the composer, perhaps inevitably, was including Bach in his homage.

Petrenko had the work’s measure, leading us straight into the ‘sturm und drang’ of the first movement with its grim, D minor struggles. They were captivating, especially at the end of the introduction when rapt strings introduced the ‘Dresden Amen’, a striking alternative to the flurry of activity around them. The second movement had an attractive lilt, the third a nicely poised subject, before flautist Emer McDonough gave an impeccable solo to lead us into the finale. It fell to her to present the chorale theme, taken up with greater number and power by the rest of the orchestra. The mood turned from struggle to victory. Petrenko’s pacing was ideal, as was the phrasing, while the final reverberations of the chorale were more than sufficient in lieu of an encore.

This was a very fine if slightly understated first Prom for the RPO conductor in his new role, bringing the ideal combination of new and familiar. The orchestra appear to be in very good hands.

You can listen to a playlist of the works featured in this concert, including the violin encore, on Spotify below:

You can find more information on the BBC Proms at the festival’s homepage

In concert – Members of the English Sinfonia @ St John’s Smith Square: English Miniatures

Members of the English Sinfonia: Janice Graham (violin), Nick Bootiman (viola), Julia Graham (cello) Chris Hopkins (piano)

Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending (1914)
Bridge Miniatures – Book 2, H88 (1910)
Coleridge-Taylor Piano Trio in E minor (1893)
Holst String Trio in G minor (1894)
Bax Piano Quartet in One Movement (1922)

St. John’s, Smith Square, London, 15 December 2020 (lunchtime)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Celebrating its 60th anniversary next year, the English Sinfonia will be remembered by older listeners for those valuable recordings of British music with Neville Dilkes (not least the first modern account of Moeran’s Symphony). Its current incarnation as ensemble-cum-chamber orchestra enables it to tackle a wide repertoire, and even though only the core personnel was featured in this afternoon’s concert, the works that were chosen offered a more than plausible overview of British chamber music composed across the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Easy to forget that, long before his music assumed a more radical mindset, Frank Bridge was a composer of lighter fare. Hence those three sets of Miniatures for piano trio – classy salon music of which the second set moves from a soulful while never cloying Romance, via an infectious and decidedly scherzo-like Intermezzo, to a Saltarello with more than a hint of menace in its hectic dash. By comparison, the Piano Trio of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor tries a little too hard to impress. If this early piece is hardly the equal of such as the later Clarinet Quintet, its three compact movements are never less than eventful – whether in the vehement Allegro with its portentous opening, a Scherzo whose unremitting energy brings little respite, or Finale whose distinctive furiant rhythm sees the whole work through to a forthright close.

Unlike the above, Holst composed relatively few chamber pieces in his maturity. While his String Trio evinces little sense of what he went on to achieve, this does not lack for incident. Idiosyncratic, too, in that its compact and forthright opening movement is followed by one which, over twice as long, integrates a slow movement, scherzo and finale that add up to an unlikely if cohesive whole; the fugal intricacies of that final section a stern test of ensemble such as the present players despatched with evident resolve. Appreciably more characteristic is the Piano Quartet by Bax – its tensile single movement packing a wide range of ideas and moods into little more than 10 minutes; and following an essentially conflicted to triumphal trajectory recalling that of the combative First Symphony which immediately preceded it.

Opening this afternoon’s programme, Janice Graham gave an affecting account of The Lark Ascending in the version for violin and piano first heard in public exactly 100 years ago. Now the orchestral version has become ubiquitous, this chamber guise can feel almost a reduction, yet the lucidity of its formal layout becomes even more explicit, and the understated poise of its piano part – as rendered by Chris Hopkins – belies any doubts as to Vaughan Williams’s limitations when writing for the instrument. An eloquent start to an enterprising programme.

Further information at https://www.englishsinfonia.org.uk/

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

Playlist – Sound of Mind 3: Orchestral

Today’s playlist of music for the mind has an orchestral theme, which will hopefully bring you some colour if you’re stuck indoors.

This one features Aaron Copland‘s brightly-scored ballet music Appalachian Spring, the first movement of Rachmaninov‘s Second Piano Concerto, Elgar‘s Sospiri, shorter works by Grieg and Debussy, and Vaughan Williams‘ timeless Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis:

I hope you enjoy it – and stay tuned for some uplifting Friday vibes tomorrow!

Ben Hogwood

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