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

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

Talking Heads: Martyn Brabbins

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

When it comes to British music, Martyn Brabbins is your man.

His current set of projects are particularly invigorating. A cycle of Vaughan Williams symphonies with the BBC Symphony Orchestra is off to a flying start, with a recording of A London Symphony on Hyperion. A cycle of the symphonies of Sir Michael Tippett with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is also underway for the same company, and will include the world premiere of the composer’s early Symphony in B flat. Then there is the small matter of English National Opera, where Brabbins is Music Director – and it’s after a stint of rehearsals and creative advice there that Arcana takes him to the pub for a well-earned drink. As you might hope for one deeply involved in English symphonies, he chooses a pale ale.

“We’ve just done the Sea Symphony!” he proclaims when the small matter of the Vaughan Williams cycle is raised. Does that mean with the first two works covered, that the nine symphonies will proceed in chronological order? “They will now,” he confirms, “we’re doing the Third (the Pastoral) and the Fourth next year. One at a time! I supposed we didn’t do the Sea Symphony first because of the chorus availability, but it doesn’t matter.”

A London Symphony (no.2) is now out on Hyperion, and has been extremely well received, not least for the extended edition used. “What I really like about it was the version we did. A real Vaughan Williams buff said to me that we should do this version. It has been recorded before, but he thought – and I agree with him now – that some of the music that Vaughan Williams put back in is absolutely fantastic.

I know the original, and even some of the music that we’ve cut out of the version we’ve done is amazing – but as a one-off performance piece that original version is a bit too long. This one is only five more minutes, but you get such pay-offs in the new music, especially at the very end of the piece and in the slow movement. The slow movement coda is absolutely ravishing. When we recorded it with the BBC Symphony Orchestra they realised it was different and they were completely convinced. I don’t remember anybody saying they preferred the original, and at the time, when we were recording in Henry Wood Hall, it felt so right because this is the orchestra for whom it was written. It is in their blood and in their spirit, possibly more than any other British orchestra.”

The orchestra has a rich recent history with VW, due to their conductor laureate Sir Andrew Davis. “He did a cycle with them,” says Brabbins, “and somehow it felt like they knew how it should go, and on a technical level they can do everything anyway. You just press the right buttons and they are so incredibly responsive, and so willing to go where you want them to go.”

Did he take their performing history into account when preparing the recording? “No, not at all. I just feel the fact they have that history means they don’t just do it how they’ve done it –they have the DNA of the music. It was like that in the Birtwistle Earth Dances, which we performed alongside the Sea Symphony at the Barbican in November. They are the only orchestra in the world that has got it in their blood. With that piece particularly it’s incredibly difficult and they have to work really hard, but in that performance it felt like they were meeting a familiar friend.”

I confess to Brabbins that I have struggled with Birtwistle at times – the Earth Dances included – due more to my own response to the music than anything else. It is however telling to witness the effect his music has on devotees such as its conductor. “It was a shattering performance, and I think anyone who was there was very positive about it”, he says. “Again the orchestra wondered why we weren’t recording it! Some of them might not like it but they take enormous pride in doing it. It’s like taking a really high, haute cuisine recipe and doing something out of the ordinary with it. It’s in every musician’s grasp but you have to grasp it. We all have those challenges in our lives I imagine, but when you’ve achieved it the rewards are so great. I think for your case it’s just repetition, listening to it more. I’ve always listened to a lot of contemporary music, and I trained as a composer, so I’ve always been interested, not in an anoraky kind of way but I’ve always found it hugely rewarding to explore music. As a professional I always want to do the best for my colleague composers. It gives me a huge sympathy for them!”

He elaborates. “When I think a composer has done their utmost to make a piece work, and they’re being practical, professional and interacting well with the musicians, when you get everything going well – like the opera I’ve been doing with Nico Muhly, Marnie – then it’s great. They’re not all like that, but I do try to pride myself on being a good intermediary between composer and orchestra. That can be very fraught, because if a composer doesn’t handle them right, you’re in deep water.”

A form of negotiation, essentially? “You have to be diplomatic but you have to be that all the time as a conductor. When there is a composer in the room there is a chance of a catastrophic outburst. I’ve witnessed players really lose their temper, and witnessed composers behave awfully – and once that happens, nobody is a winner! So I try all I can to avoid that.”

As is customary, at some point in an Arcana interview we ask our subjects to cast their mind back to their first encounters with classical music. Martyn thinks hard before taking up the story. “I remember music moving me as a child, especially when I sang it. I used to make myself feel sad singing Edelweiss from The Sound of Music. I grew up in a non-musical household, but joined a brass band at the age of eight or nine. Through that I would have got to know arrangements of classical music.”

He gives more detail on his family history. “When I think that I had a working class background, and am one of five kids, it’s pure fluke that I’m here. I’m quite proud of that, because I left school at 14. My dad and mum worked in a shop, dad became a travelling salesman, and there was no education to speak of.

My dad was a paratrooper in the Second World War, and was a prisoner of war. Looking back, he is a hero for me. He then had a tragic car crash when I was at the age of seven. I had a younger brother, an elder brother and two elder sisters, and he was in his late 40s. He never really got himself back. His kidneys failed, and he had renal dialysis for 15 years at home. Both of my parents died before I went to study conducting, in the same year. They were hugely wonderful to me, and in no way did they discourage music. Dad had a good singing voice, and I remember he had about four classical records. I used to nick them and play them very loudly in my bedroom if I could – the Karajan Verdi Requiem, Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony with Karl Böhm and SibeliusSymphony no.5 conducted by Anthony Collins. They are the records I remember at home in my teens.

I was born in Leicester, and dad heard Gigli and Caruso there. There was never any serious idea that I would become a musician though. One of my oldest sisters went to university, and I did in the end, but my other siblings are an electrician, a chef and a secretary who went to run a company. When you talk to other conductors there is probably a private education somewhere along the way, from Cambridge or Oxford. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying any of that is a bad thing – it’s wonderful! – but I never saw myself in that league. It took me a while to even think I could be a conductor because of my background, my lack of keyboard skills – and I wasn’t a chorister either. There were so many things against it but in my early 20s after graduating people said why don’t you take it seriously? That’s how it started, with a few brass bands. I played in a band but then conducted the one I had grown up in as a member. It was too far to travel to Northamptonshire and so I got a band in London, then conducted amateur choirs and orchestras. Then I went off to Russia and it all happened after that, so it was a very unorthodox route!”

Now for Brabbins it is all about giving something back, and he is equally keen to talk about this as he is his own new recordings. “I’ve just established a youth company at the ENO, the Harewood Artists Programme, and some of the youngsters are clearly from disadvantaged circumstances, but when you hear them making music and drama together I realise just how lucky I am to be here. I’m a donor to the Baylis programme here at ENO, simply because I realise that so many kids with talent are never given the chance. This has got nothing to do with CDs though! I’m president of the Salomon Orchestra, who are amateurs, and Music Director of the Huddersfield Choral Society. I’m president of the Royal Choral Union in Edinburgh, and the Towcester Choral Society where I grew up. I really care about music making for all people.”

I remark how this dedication to the community recalls tales of Vaughan Williams, and he nods vigorously. “Of course! He did amazing things, and he wrote music to speak to everyone. The Hymn Tunes on the new disc are a great example of that.”

Does he think that London now is so different from Vaughan Williams’ capital city that A London Symphony is less meaningful? “I realised this morning that I haven’t read Tono-Bungay, the H G Wells book that the piece is inspired by, so I’m going to put that right as soon as I can. I think there is still enough of a connection with the spirit of London from that period somehow. It’s a completely different city in all manner of ways, but still there is a kind of special flavour about London. You can talk to a cabbie or walk down some of the back streets, or go to some East End or South London locations, and there are certain connections. It seems to me that Londoners still have that pride in their history, so although it has changed you can still smell the same London that Vaughan Williams did – maybe not quite as smoggy! I think that is where the cover of that disc is fantastic, Simon Perry and those guys find such fantastic artwork for their discs at Hyperion.”

As the symphony cycle progresses Brabbins will inevitably arrive at the angrier wartime symphonies, the Fourth and Sixth in particular. Will he then be more mindful of his father’s role in the war? “Well Vaughan Williams was of course a driver in the First World War”, he notes, “and he went off to France. The Pastoral is influenced by his experiences in France. As for my connection, I was born in 1959, so if you think back from here that’s only 15 years after the war ended, which is incredible. You don’t think of things like that until you’re much older, but realising how close it all was is amazing. My dad was a prisoner of war, and we’ve got the telegrams from the war office saying ‘Missing In Action’. It’s incredibly touching and moving.”

“Having that family connection and experience…everything infuses how you perform, how you look at stuff. I went to Auschwitz for the first time recently, and that leaves an indelible mark on how you view things. The whole thing is so profoundly inhuman and unrepeatable, but sadly the same tragic stuff is still going on. Life is full of horrible things, and as I get older I realise my emotions in performance are much more free, and bubble over sometimes. The whole thing gets to me! I think that’s all to do with the things one goes through, your history and pre-history, and stuff that happened to you or your family. I’ve got three children and one of them has had health problems, my wife has had brain surgery previously, I lost my parents in my 20s – all those things give you a grounding in emotion somewhere, and it comes out.”

The music of Vaughan Williams will be forever close, it would seem. “I remember I was doing the Fifth Symphony on tour in China. I had to go there about 3-4 days after my father in law died, and I had to get back to see him. Because I lost my parents early he was like a father to me. We were doing Vaughan Williams’ Fifth in Beijing, and in the slow movement I just collapsed. I carried on but music has that way of speaking in a way that is unexpected, perhaps. The Fourth and Sixth as you say, there is a palpable anger there. He wouldn’t have it said that the Sixth is about the Second World War but…”

What about the striking discord in the epilogue of the London Symphony, does that have a similar quality? “Harmonically I find the whole piece very subtle, and everywhere there are places that become dissonant and then come back, bass lines that are sustained, and dissonances that come against it. I think it’s incredible music. The way he evokes place, somehow, and weather – you can almost feel the mist. The Scherzo is fantastic in this way, the Nocturne too.”

He also notes the French influence. “I think that time with Ravel was very important, and that Vaughan Williams did the right thing going to him. The orchestration, the colours and the way he subdivides the string sections – it’s amazing stuff and I’m sure that is the French influence.”

As a coupling to the London Symphony Brabbins chooses two vocal pieces, Elizabeth Watts singing Sound Sleep and Orpheus With His Lute, and then conducts the Royal College of Music Brass Band in the Variations. “The songs are very lovely, they’ve never been recorded – and there is something similar to go on the Sea Symphony disc. I have to say that for me the real thrill was doing the brass band variations, and of course now you know my background you can see that.”

“It just occurred to me that I played that piece as a boy and had never conducted it. I said to Simon Perry, how about it, and he said yes, if that’s what you want to do! I had just got this position at the Royal Northern College, and for them it’s quite a treat, for the students to prepare and record something under the conditions we did was wonderful. It’s top quality stuff, the producer Andrew Keener is a genius to work with, so educationally it was brilliant, and they get on to a successful disc, so it’s a win-win situation! For me getting that on there was great, because it takes me back to my roots.”

His own compositions have come to light at a similar time. “As an aside, James MacMillan has got a festival up in Ayrshire, and he asked me if I would conduct a brass band in the festival that’s just gone. I thought it over, and by the third beer I said yes! I hadn’t conducted a brass band for 30 years, and it was like going home. It was the Dalmellington Band, one of the top bands in Scotland, and it was so thrilling to go back and hear that sound, to feel the enthusiasm, the joy they get. It’s nice to go back to your roots.

When James asked me we came up with a few pieces – Eric Ball’s Resurgam, Herbert HowellsSuite from Pageantry, and a world premiere from Jay Capperauld and the Mendelssohn Hebrides Overture. It was alright, once I got them not to play too loudly! I also mentioned to James that in 1980-81 I wrote two very short pieces for brass band that have never been played. I ran through one and the band couldn’t play it at the time. They’ve been in my attic for 30 years, and I sent it to James and he said we’d do them! So there were two Brabbins premieres…and someone was there and they want to publish them, which is great! It was a terrific experience all round.”

Recently Brabbins has brought the music of Sir Michael Tippett back into the spotlight, and he reflects briefly on the composer. “I knew him a little, I did a few projects with him in the latter years of his life. I knew his music, and I met him quite a few times and Meirion Bowen, his partner, who was a Guardian critic – I knew him quite well. Poor Tippett disappeared once he died, apart from the obvious pieces. So a few years ago with Steven Osborne we did the Piano Concerto, and I’ve done A Child Of Our Time – we staged it with ENO and I’ve done it in concert. I’ve not done any major repertoire apart from this, so I suggested we do a Tippett Symphony cycle. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra were willing to program them, two last season and two this, and I can tell you it’s going to be good. I’ve got a copy of the first disc, and I think it’s as good as any of the other recordings. I think it will be very well received. That music is very difficult, and it needs a bit of time to get to know. The orchestra really took it to heart. We have just done the Third in concert and they really loved it. That’s quite a feat.”

“The most exciting part of the project is the ‘rediscovery’, the Symphony in B flat, which is a new discovery for me too. An academic friend alerted me to it, and we looked – and I thought we should do it! However there was a clause in his will that we had to overcome, so I asked the trustees and the Tippett Foundation, and in the end they decided on balance that it would be better for that piece to be heard, especially by people who knew Tippett. The thought being to get it out while his friends are still around! It’s a significant piece, around half an hour, and if I understand correctly it had a lot of performances, more than a handful at least. When Schott’s the publishers took him on, I think it was in the 1950s, and he decided to withdraw it. I can see what he means, but historically it is an interesting thing.”

You can hear the Symphony in B flat on the BBC iPlayer here

British music is a huge part of Brabbins’ life, and he is combining it with his work for English National Opera. “Yes, and with repertoire that has been neglected for a little too long. We’re talking about bringing back some British pieces which haven’t been done for a while. It’s a great company with an amazing history, and a wonderful orchestra and chorus. Sadly it’s had trials and tribulations in other areas, so I’m hoping we can have a period of some stability and re-establish what the company is really about, which is making great music and getting the dramas on stage, which we do well! The Barber of Seville, Aida, Rodelinda – they have had fantastic quality of voices, all of them. Marnie is really good too.”

Is there any more British orchestral music he is keen to do? “There are people around I would like to have a look at”, he says, “and not necessarily British! I’ve got scores at home of the symphonies of Gavril Popov, they’re just enormous, and there are interesting people out there. Myaskovsky I would like to do. I’ve done all the Bruch violin music, and I’d like to record the symphonies.

Over the years, for many years, I recorded what I was asked to record. Now I can say I’d like to record this, what do you think? They’re not going to say yes to a Beethoven cycle, I’d do those in concert. I should be doing stuff that other people aren’t doing and that I can do as well as anybody. I would love to do the Elgar Symphonies, all three of them, at some point. I did the First, 15 years ago, and it was a mistake. We didn’t have time, the orchestra didn’t know it and it wasn’t ideal. I’d love to do it again. It was with the Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra. They’re a fine orchestra but Elgar needs to be in your blood before you record it.”

Elgar has an increased international appeal now – but he is not the only British composer to enjoy elevated status. “I tell you where they love Vaughan Williams is Japan”, says Brabbins. “I’ve done the Antarctica and the London Symphonies, and they love it. It’s the pentatonic quality!”

Finally, what is his relationship with London in comparison to Vaughan Williams’ own? “The first time I came to London was to see Tutankhamun at the British Museum,” he recalls, “and I remember seeing someone like Houdini near the Tower of London, completely chained up. I must have been a little boy…but then I came to London to live in 1977, to go to Goldsmiths, and I lived here until 1989. I met my wife in 1977. I did 2 years as a postgraduate, she did a year, she went off to Germany to work (she’s a violinist) and she came back. We got a flat in London, in Wimbledon, in 1984, and lived there – although in 1986 I went off to Russia for two years. We decided to move out just before our first child was born. I live very near to Down Ampney, fifteen miles away in Gloucestershire. It’s a very musical county – we’ve had Howells and Holst, Elgar’s up the road, Finzi lived in Painswick, there is Vaughan Williams of course – it’s everywhere!”

You can read more about Martyn Brabbins at his website. The recordings of Vaughan Williams’ A London Symphony and Tippett’s Symphonies nos. 1 & 2 are both available now from Hyperion.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard – Birdsong at Aldeburgh


Pierre-Laurent Aimard (photo Marco Borggreve)

This will be the eighth and final season of the Aldeburgh Festival to have Pierre-Laurent Aimard as its Artistic Director. To mark the occasion, the pianist has curated some unusual and intriguing concerts, and for the final year these revolve around his first instrument.

There will be a complete performance of Bartók’s Mikrokosmos, but the event generating even more discussion is a performance of the complete Catalogue d’oiseaux, the collection of pieces for piano completed by Olivier Messiaen in 1958, the composer looking to directly replicate a rich variety of birdsong.

Aimard is presenting all of these, some 3 hours’ worth of music, in Snape and surrounding locations on Sunday, June 19. The day begins before first light, at 3:30am, with the audience given the opportunity to enjoy the dawn chorus, before Aimard begins his own performance just an hour later.


Le traquet stapazin (Black-eared Wheatear) – the first of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux to be performed in Aimard’s sequence.

During the day the music will move out and about, taking in RSPB Minsmere, before returning to the Britten Studio in Snape Maltings, where the final performance is at 11:00pm. Pierre-Laurent generously allowed Arcana time to talk about the day of birds, his experiences with Messiaen around the music itself, his thoughts on the festival and his plans for the future.

When did you first visit Aldeburgh, and what were your first impressions?

I first visited Aldeburgh a certain amount of time ago, long before I took over the direction of the festival. Like everybody I was impressed by the magic of the landscape, and also by the acoustic at Snape Maltings, not to mention the open-mindedness of the audience. These things don’t change!

What gave you the idea of performing the ‘Catalogue d’oiseaux’ in this way? Is it because Aldeburgh lends itself as a venue for music about nature?

I played my first bird pieces when I was twelve, so it’s a long story of music that has always been very close to me. I loved those pieces from the start, but I always wondered how can we present them to make sense? The sonorities in each of them are so different. Does it make sense to play them in recital? I’m not sure, and so I think we have found the most genuine, natural environment for this music.

Have you been rehearsing at the appointed concert times, such as 4:30am?!

I played the pieces recently in Tokyo, and they were day concerts – so I realised that when you play at midday there it is like 4:00am in the Europe. Now I think I’m trained!

How else have you prepared for this performance? Have you been walking in the reeds around Snape?

I have been walking of course, at all kinds of moments, both day and night. The impact of the place, and the nature of how the music sounds, is very strong. I do feel that we have picked all the right locations for this, and especially in the case of Minsmere, which is absolutely the right location. Messiaen loved and studied birdsong, so there is nothing better.

I am amazed by the number of places there are in the UK dedicated to the observation of birds, and the number of people who are devoted to them. Clearly this is a thing where mankind realises what can be lost, and I think this is an important thing to consider in the performance.

It is great there is this increase of interest in nature, and I think Messiaen, as a sort of prophet, felt this keenly. He was seen as foolish and crazy when he wrote the Catalogue d’oiseaux in the late 1950s, and he was a lost, isolated man as a result.

However I notice a big difference in the listeners between then and now. I performed the whole set in Dresden recently, with two short breaks, and there was a fabulous level of concentration from the audience. It shows how artists can challenge people.

There are many levels of richness in the music itself, exploring the relationship between man and nature, and showing the new language in the 1950s that Messiaen found, in sound vocabulary. He didn’t do it with new innovations such as serial composition, but with his birdsongs.


L’Alouette lulu (Woodlark)– the last of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux to be heard in Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s sequence.

What did you learn from studying with Messiaen himself, or his wife Yvonne Loriod, about the ‘Catalogue d’oiseaux’?

Studying with Messiaen was like hearing the original language, and you can sense it in their fingers. It was just like he imagined and wrote the music, and he is the source – so it was an incredible privilege to experience this music from him. He loved to explain everything and he spoke a lot about each piece. He would imitate the birds with onomatopoeia, describing their habits as well as the songs they sang. Even the silences in this music should be just right, and alive.

Do you plan to record the complete ‘Catalogue d’Oiseaux’?

I would love to at some point. I have recorded small parts within my albums for Deutsche Grammophon on the music of Liszt, and Messiaen, but I would love to record it in full.

You have also programmed the complete Mikrokosmos to be played at the festival. Do you think this will especially appeal to those players who have encountered this music of Bartók as part of their learning?

The last Sunday will be my very last day as Director of the Aldeburgh Festival, so I wanted it to reflect the priorities we have shared. Discovery is a big part of that, so we finish with the sixth book of a huge project. The second priority is shared pedagogical progress, and discovering the shared accessible world of Bartók’s project. All kinds of pianists are taking part, so it is the principal of sharing with a community spirit. On the Saturday we will include new pieces alongside them.

These are the priorities – creation, pedagogy and community, the culmination of working with a marvellous team for 8 years.


The view from Aldeburgh Music (c) Philip Vile

Do you see the Aldeburgh Festival as a unique institution?

Yes, both in its range and originality. I was the exception but I am an interpreter that loves creation. Jonathan Reekie, who chose me, saw an interpreter who was not from the UK, and saw that as a way to open up the festival. I try to be an interpreter, and not to stick to one religion. I have treated it rather like a composer, and I try to have a dialogue between ‘religions’ or ‘composers’.

Jonathan chose me because I could bring a presence from outside of England, and an eye on the UK artists that is not the same. That was the wish, to open up the game.

If you are in charge of a big legacy you are not serving it well by simply copying it. Clearly you have to try to bring in complements, differences, and sometimes controversy, to help it progress. I have looked to present the music of Britten in different contexts, and this year I chose Tippett, for the links of friendship, harmony, contradiction and consideration.

Do you think it is important to take classical music beyond those who already know it with the festival?

I think we have been very lucky with the team and community of programmers. This is not only a tradition but a necessity in the special way that artistry should be shared with many participants.

What are your plans for the future, post-Aldeburgh?

With my future plans I am sure of one thing. I loved doing this job, though mentally it took a lot of time and attention. I will be delighted to invest that back in to the piano, but I will have many activities other than that, which you will find out about!

Looking back on your time with the festival, what has been your most satisfying achievement?

It is not so important for me to think of personal achievements, but it is important that there were memorable moments for people watching. As far as I could analyse the comments, I think the festival has changed, but has stayed alive and continued to move forward. Fundamental elements have been retained and that was important, to respect the identity of an institution the best I could, but to have another level of reflection and excitement, to avoid a routine, provincial approach and sterility. I think we can say we have achieved that.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard will perform the complete Catalogue d’oiseaux at Aldeburgh Festival locations throughout Sunday 19 June. Tickets are sold out, but BBC Radio 3 will be broadcasting the whole experience, beginning here and ending here

For more information on Pierre-Laurent Aimard, visit his website

Wigmore Mondays – Britten and Auden from Robin Tritschler & Gary Matthewman


Robin Tritschler (tenor, above), Gary Matthewman (piano)

Wigmore Hall, London, 4 April 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)


Available until 4 May

Britten To lie flat on the back; Fish in the unruffled lakes; Berkeley Night covers up the rigid land (1939); Underneath the abject willow (1941); Berkeley Lay your sleeping head, my love (1937), Britten: When you’re feeling like expressing your affection (17 minutes)

Trad, arr. Britten The Jolly Miller (1946), The Ash Grove (1941), The Salley Gardens (1940), The Bonny Earl O’ Moray (1940); The Foggy, Foggy Dew (1942) (12 minutes)

Tippett 3 Songs for Ariel (1961) (5 minutes)

Britten On This Island, Op.11 (1937) (14 minutes)


If you cannot access the concert, the below Spotify playlist contains all the songs. Robin Tritschler has yet to record these, but they are given here in versions from Philip Langridge:

About the music

Both the personality and the poetry of W.H. Auden were a revelation to the young Benjamin Britten when he was living in New York…and not just Britten either, for Lennox Berkeley also fell briefly under the poet’s spell.

His unique and highly descriptive way with the English language was a perfect foil for song composers such as Britten and Berkeley in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and here are some choice settings that use the piano as well as the verse to paint vivid pictures.

A selection of Britten’s folksong settings follow, with familiar tunes in songs such as The Ash Grove and The Foggy, Foggy Dew given new clothes from Britten.

The Shakespeare 400th celebrations are marked with the music of Sir Michael Tippett, all too infrequently performed these days. His 3 Songs for Ariel are brief but concentrated miniatures.

Finally Britten’s first published collection of songs, On This Island, is a quintet of Auden settings, not as closely linked as subsequent song cycles such as the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings or Winter Words, but showing his increasing prowess as a song composer.

Performance verdict

Robin Tritschler is a natural in the music of Britten, and clearly enjoyed the nuances of Auden’s poetry as he sang these songs. With Gary Matthewman an excellent, attentive accompanist he caught the tension of this period in Britten’s life, where the young composer was trying to find his feet but also feeling the pressure of being a member of Auden’s ‘circle’.

Tritschler sings with great clarity – the words are always easy to hear – and Matthewman matches his ear for detail with some virtuosic piano playing that somehow sounds effortless.

What should I listen out for?

W.H. Auden selection

1:59 – Britten To lie flat on the back

4:27 – Britten Fish in the unruffled lakes – an incredibly vivid picture of the water issues forth from the piano, followed with an oblique melody that is somehow memorable, fitting Auden’s poetry perfectly. The twinkling right hand of the piano finishes the song.

6:59 – Berkeley Night covers up the rigid land

9:38 – Britten Underneath the abject willow – a poem of Auden’s that again has very pictorial references that Britten delights in referring to in his piano part. A bracing main part leads to a softer, shadowy central section, before the bracing theme returns (10:44)

11:33 – Berkeley Lay your sleeping head, my love – a soft lulling to sleep from the piano chords that toll softly, before a caring and rather romantic vocal is revealed. From around 14:40 a powerful climax is reached.

17:10 – Britten When you’re feeling like expressing your affection – a humorous advert for using the telephone that is also quite affecting personally.

Trad, arr Britten

19:49 The Jolly Miller (from Hullah’s song-book) Britten’s ability to paint a picture through his piano accompaniments is put to especially vivid use here, the waters swirling rather ominously around the miller. The constant clash of notes gives the setting a rather darker air, as the idea of the ‘jolly miller’ is given a twist by the final line, ‘I care for nobody, no not I, if nobody cares for me’.

22:04 The Ash Grove (Trad) A deceptively simple beauty. The graceful melody gets the ideal response from Britten here, as he uses one of his favourite musical forms – the canon – to keep the melody on the piano running at a distance of half a bar behind the voice. The graceful but slightly watery piano part sets up a mood of reflection, until later in the song when voice and piano part company, at which point the piano heads into a completely different key. Britten’s genius is fully at work here, and The Ash Grove becomes less folk song, more English ‘Lied’. It is a strangely unsettling song.

24:30 The Salley Gardens (W.B. Yeats) A simple, yearning song that makes the most of its beautiful melody. There is a deep sense of longing in the harmonies Britten chooses to go with the tune here, and he achieves this as early as possible in the piano introduction, despite the words remaining largely positive until the revelation at the end that ‘now I am full of tears’.

27:08 The Bonny Earl O’Moray (Trad) Britten’s setting is a regal funeral march, an invitation for the singer to completely let rip against a piano accompaniment that has grand pretensions too. He moves between the major and minor key rather like Schubert used to do, keeping the listener guessing until the downcast end in the minor.

29:12 The foggy, foggy dew (Trad) Britten’s piano is appropriately cheeky, offering a nod and a wink to the listener outside of its Schubert influence, and it’s a memorable tune that sticks in the head for a while after listening.

Tippett (words by Shakespeare)

33:11 Come unto those yellow sands Tippett uses a florid vocal line here, a direct influence from Purcell. The words are clear, the piano accompaniment fast moving – and at the end the tenor evokes a dog barking

35:08 Full fathom five A solemn song with Tippett’s imagery of the ‘ding dong bell’ striking both in the vocal and piano lines.

36:46 Where the bee sucks Quite a jumpy setting this, with Tippett’s jaunty, staccato piano introduction finding a match in the tenor’s line.

Britten – On This Island (W.H. Auden)

39:38 Let the florid music praise! A grand opening to the collection, the tenor’s declamation matched by a busy, regal piano line. The mood turns, however, into a more carefully considered and slightly sorrowful song.

43:07 Now the leaves are falling fast The detached piano figures reflect the tension in this song. interpreted by Humphrey Carpenter as laced with sexual frustration. Carpenter’s commentary on this period of Britten’s life is thoroughly engaging, bringing through the tensions of grief versus the true beginning of the composer’s adulthood.

45:12 Seascape A more agile song, this, but a restless one too – perhaps because of its evocation of the rising and falling tide in the piano part.

47:28 Nocturne The finest song of the five, where Britten’s simplicity wins through – as does Auden’s poetry, talking of ‘night’s caressing grip’. This is a very moving song, the slow tolling of the piano enhancing its impact – and reminding us that it is a lament for Britten’s recently departed friend, Peter Burra.

51:38 As it is, plenty A typically ‘smart’ Auden poem that gets a similar response from Britten. The piano part is like pointed footsteps, until gradually the celebratory mood of the first song in the collection asserts itself towards the end.


54:27 Fishing by Arthur Oldham, Britten’s only pupil on his return to England from America. Even in the incredibly brief 40 seconds of this song, taken from the Five Chinese Lyrics, you get a sense of the influence!

Further listening

English song is a maligned but very enjoyable musical area – and arguably the best people to take us through it are the tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Julius Drake. Here is their album The English Songbook: