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

BBC Proms: BBC Singers / Sakari Oramo – Songs of Farewell and Laura Mvula premiere

Proms at the Cadogan Hall: BBC Singers (above) / Sakari Oramo (below)

Bridge Music, when soft voices die (1907)
Vaughan Williams Rest (1902)
Holst Nunc dimittis (1915)
Laura Mvula Love Like A Lion (2018, world premiere)
Parry Songs of Farewell (1913-15)

Cadogan Hall, Monday 20 August 2018

You can listen to this Prom by clicking here The times given on this page refer to the starting times on the broadcast itself

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

Over the last couple of decades the Monday lunchtime strand of the BBC Proms concerts have gone from strength to strength, and the 2018 season looks like being an especially good vintage. English song has fared particularly well, and on the heels of Dame Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton’s imaginative recital, here was a choral selection based around rest, sleep and departure.

To be more specific, the form of rest composers Bridge, Vaughan Williams, Holst and Parry had in mind was the Eternal form. Frank Bridge wrote Music when soft voices die (from 1:49 on the broadcast) as his entry for a magazine competition, Vaughan Williams set the text of Rest (6:33) as a deeply felt short song, while Gustav Holst’s setting of the Nunc Dimittis (10:49), made in 1915, was resurrected for publication by his daughter Imogen in 1979.

Pride of place, however, went to Sir Hubert Parry’s Songs of Farewell, one of the crowning glories of his output. Rarely performed as a cycle, this series of unaccompanied motets, completed late in the composer’s life and in the shadow of the First World War, marks some of Parry’s deepest thoughts on mortality. They are every bit as profound in today’s world as they would have been then, and an attentive audience in the Cadogan Hall evidently took plenty from this interpretation.

Sakari Oramo has experience as a choral conductor but this was his first outing with the BBC Singers. He led them in a direct, unfussy manner, shaping the phrases while recognising this experienced group already have the tools at their disposal to make a beautiful sound.

Parry constructed the cycle so that his part writing gains density as the songs unfold, moving from four parts through to eight by the final Lord, let me know thine end.
Oramo took us on that progression with a gradual increase of intensity, helped by purity of tone and unanimity of voice. My soul, there is a country (29:09) began as a lighter, thoughtful account, building in intensity, the parts moving closely together. I know my soul hath power to know all things (32:53) was notable as much for its expressive pauses between words, Oramo’s direction ensuring a tight-knit ensemble. Some of Parry’s musical phrases are of considerable length, but the BBC Singers took them in their stride.

The density grew, from five parts (the beautiful Never weather-beaten sail, 38:35) to six (There is an old belief, ) then seven (a hypnotic account of All round the earth’s imagined corners, 43:15) to ultimately eight (Lord, let me know mine end, 50:04). This was the apex of the performance, notable for its calm acceptance of the final days of life, and in the closing pages the BBC Singers portrayed Parry facing his ultimate departure with an incredibly moving dignity.

The whole concert was structured rather like the Parry cycle, beginning from the small but poignant songs from Vaughan Williams and Bridge. The BBC Singers were excellent, with beautiful phrasing, and a surprise was in store for the Holst. Often the Nunc Dimittis is a softly voiced counterpoint to the Magnificat, but this one grew from small beginnings to become a forceful statement, delivered with impressive surety.

And so to Laura Mvula’s three-part work Love Like A Lion (12:58), written to a commission by the BBC but charting rest and loss in a rather different way. The loss here was a relationship, causing intense pain in Like A Child but with acceptance given in I Will Nor Die (For Him) (20:30), with a penetrating solo from Helen Neeves (21:08) over a gently undulating accompaniment that took us to a special, faraway place. Free from restrictions, Love Like a Lion itself (23:46) revelled in its new freedom, as did Sakari Oramo – who knows Mvula well from their Birmingham days. Love Like A Lion showed her ease with choral writing, and was a deeply expressive voyage from darkness to light. Hopefully we will hear more from her very soon.

BBC Proms: Dame Sarah Connolly & Joseph Middleton – English Songs

Proms at the Cadogan Hall: Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano, above), Joseph Middleton (piano, below)

Stanford A Soft Day Op.140/3 (from A Sheaf of Songs from Leinster) (1913) (from 7:15 on the broadcast)
Parry Weep you no more, sad fountains (from English Lyrics Set 4) (1896) (9:58)
Vaughan Williams Love-Sight (from The House of Life) (1903) (12:18)
Gurney Thou didst delight my eyes (1921) (16:53)
Somervell A Shropshire Lad – ‘Into my heart an air that kills’ (1904) (20:19)
Bridge Come to me in my dreams (1906) (22:45)
Howells Goddess of Night (1920)
Bridge Journey’s End (1925) (28:19)
Britten A Sweet Lullaby (36:34); Somnus (40:31) (both 1947, world premieres)
Holst Journey’s End (1929) (42:50)
Britten A Charm of Lullabies Op.41 (1947) (45:09, 47:22, 49:08, 51:06, 52:48)
Lisa Illean Sleeplessness … Sails (2018, world premiere) (57:31)
Mark-Anthony Turnage Farewell (2016, world premiere)

Cadogan Hall, Monday 6 August 2018

You can listen this Prom by clicking here The times given on this page refer to the starting times on the broadcast itself

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood. Photo of Sarah Connolly (c) Jan Capinski

11 composers and four world premieres in an hour. Not a recipe for sleep and respite, you might think, but Dame Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton constructed between them an enchanting tour of English song, ending up at some far-flung outposts.

For anyone new to the form this would have been the ideal introduction, especially as Dame Sarah was singing with wonderful clarity and diction. I hardly needed to glance at the texts, for her words and expressions, added to those of Middleton’s carefully and beautifully crafted piano parts, did the job perfectly. The structure of the recital was very satisfying too, with natural pauses at the end of a short group of songs for applause and the intake of breath – and, as the subject matter was sleep and dreams, it ensured nobody had fallen foul of the listening criteria in the hot conditions!

The two began in Ireland, presenting the beatific calm of Winifred LettsA Soft Day, as set by Stanford, with the ‘wind from the south’ that some of us in the hot Cadogan Hall would have been longing for! So too for the subject of Parry’s Weep you no more, sad fountains, with its flowing piano lines. This pair from the fathers of English song led to one of the ‘sons’ – Vaughan Williams, and a deeply felt Love-Sight from his song-cycle The House of Life – and Ivor Gurney, his moving Thou didst delight my eyes.

We moved on to Arthur Somervell, the brief but tenderly devastating Into my heart an air that kills (from A Shropshire Lad) and then Come to me in my dreams, an expressive, earlier example of Frank Bridge’s chromatic credentials. Bridge appeared later with the lovelorn Journey’s End, following Herbert Howells’ magical Goddess Of Night – where Connolly allowed the text plenty of room.

Britten’s interpretations of sleep and dreams range from the calm to the nightmarish, aspects that surfaced throughout his song-cycle A Charm of Lullabies, which was given with two extra songs intended for the cycle but left unused. Recently ‘repaired’ by Colin Matthews, A Sweet Lullaby and Somnus were receiving their world premieres and were interesting finds if not quite reaching the level of intensity in the cycle itself.

Britten starts his night with A Cradle Song, before Connolly’s Scots accent (she was born relatively close by in County Durham!) brought an extremely authentic voice to The Highland Balou. The fifth number, The Nurse’s Song, is structured like the Dirge from Britten’s earlier Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. It focused everyone in the hall on the vivid storytelling of Connolly’s voice, from which she moved through humour, intense scolding (scary, too!) and soft slumber. The music ranged wildly, Britten’s wandering piano writing recalling Shostakovich in A Cradle Song, while the clustered chords of the refrain in Sephestia’s Lullaby spoke vividly in a language Janáček would understand. Connolly’s characterisations were brilliant, the audience impatient to clap between numbers initially but held in rapt concentration at the end.

In between the Britten discoveries, Gustav Holst contributed a sparse but telling interpretation of Journey’s End, which Connolly again sang with deep expression, while Australian composer Lisa Illean gave us another world premiere, a farewell of her own in Sleeplessness … Sails. This was a very slow-moving piece where Connolly held admirable control, despite the music’s seeming reluctance to move on. Arguably more effective was Turnage’s Farewell, a profound statement which ended with the composer bounding on the platform, delighted at the interpretation. It would be lovely to hear more from him in song – and from this pair, too, who delivered a wonderful hour’s escapism to the land of nod!

You can hear Dame Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton’s new recital disc Come To Me In My Dreams, which features much of the music heard in this concert, on the Spotify link below:

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.