Here’s the third instalment of Martyn Brabbins’ traversal of the Vaughan Williams symphonies. He’s already given us A Sea Symphony and A London Symphony so perhaps he’s working his way through the canon in roughly chronological order, even if A London Symphony was the first to be set down. I presume that the intention is to complete the cycle in time for the 150th anniversary of VW’s birth in 2022.
I thought I would compare Brabbins’ new recording of the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony with André Previn’s 1971 recording with the LSO (review). It may be nearly 50 years old—now, there’s a scary thought—but the performance has always struck me as a highlight of his cycle and the recording still sounds very good indeed. The first movement is played most sensitively by the BBCSO but the LSO did Previn proud in 1971 too, and Previn is just slightly more expansive than Brabbins, and beneficially so, I think—try the solo violin phase (0:27 in the Previn) and what flows from it. In his perceptive notes Robert Matthew-Walker says of this symphony that in it ‘we experience the contemplation of pacification’. I think that’s especially true of the opening movement though, in my view, darker undertones pervade the remainder of the work. I don’t believe the symphony was well understood when it first appeared; many people regarded it as a rather nostalgic evocation of the English countryside. However, I think it’s pretty widely accepted now that the work is characterised much more by melancholy than nostalgia and that in its pages VW was evoking at least as much the Flanders countryside where he’d served as an ambulanceman in World War I and where he’d witnessed harrowing sights. It seems to me that Brabbins achieves a fine sense of flow and open-air spaciousness in this first movement. Such climaxes as there are—and they are fairly restrained in character—grow out of the music very naturally. He also displays a fine but natural attention to detail. In this connection one thing particularly caught my ear, namely the way a little rocking two-note figure in the bass is brought out in the passage between 8:08 and 8:26. I don’t recall ever remarking on this before but the gentle emphasis of it just brings an extra little bit of tension. The same little detail is not really audible in the Previn version.
At the start of the slow movement Brabbins and his orchestra achieve hushed stillness from which the solo horn and, subsequently, other solo instruments rise to engage our attention briefly yet tellingly. In a very fine and poetic reading of the movement the quality of the BBCSO’s playing matches that of Previn’s splendid LSO. At 4:09 the distant bugle call is magically distanced. Previn’s player is also heard from afar but I think the effect is slightly better achieved by Brabbins and the Hyperion engineers. This movement is a melancholy view of the rural landscape and Brabbins paints the scene very well indeed, the orchestral playing sensitive and refined.
The third movement contains the loudest music to date and the heavier rustic lumbering is convincingly done. Best of all, though, is the way Brabbins and his orchestra deliver the crepuscular, delicate music in the closing pages of the movement. At the start of the finale Elizabeth Watts’ voice is ideally distanced—as is Heather Harper’s for Previn. Both of these singers avoid the rather forthright style of Sarah Fox on Sir Mark Elder’s otherwise excellent Hallé recording though, as I said when reviewing that disc, I don’t think the recorded balance did Miss Fox any favours. The Hyperion recording balances Elizabeth Watts’ voice ideally as she sings her lament. There’s a vein of deep melancholy pervading the orchestral music that follows and even when the music becomes livelier (5:01) the melancholy mein is not shaken off. This quicker passage arrives at an urgent string climax before VW broadens the pace again. Brabbins handles very well the pages that follow, which lead up to and then away from the symphony’s last, brief climax. The tranquil close is very affecting as it eventually gives way to the lone voice again, supported this time not by a soft timpani roll but by the softest imaginable violin tremolando. The plaintive sound of Elizabeth Watts’ voice haunts the memory long after the sound of it is stilled.
The volcanic Fourth Symphony affords a stark contrast with the ‘Pastoral’ and Brabbins’ performance underlines the contrast. The choleric music at the start of the symphony is strongly projected in a thrusting interpretation; we definitely experience, here and elsewhere, the ‘ferocious concentration’ in the music to which Robert Matthew-Walker so justly refers. The playing of the BBCSO is dynamic, full of energy and, where required, gritty determination. On the other hand, the uneasy coda is beautifully hushed. I decided to stick with Previn for my comparison. His performance—and RCA’s recorded sound—is, if anything, even more potent but in the opening pages he’s slightly broader in his approach than Brabbins, though he presses on excitingly at around 2:40. I think that the extra momentum that Brabbins generates at the start gives him a slight edge.
The second movement has a deeply serious countenance, emphasised by the plaintive woodwind solos. Brabbins leads a very intense performance, both in the quiet, spare passages or when VW’s emotions boil over in the wrenching climaxes. The desolate flute solo towards the end (from 9:12) is ideally voiced. The quirky rhythms of the scherzo are delivered crisply and with vitality. There’s a Beethovenian energy in this movement and the nod to Beethoven is reinforced in the transition passage that leads to the finale, here played with no little tension.
The finale is mainly volatile and fiery from the outset but, wisely, Brabbins doesn’t peak too soon; rather, his performance is exciting but patient. The reprise of material from the first movement’s coda (3:07-4:32) offers a few moments of surface calm, though actually beneath the surface the passage is very unsettling. After this, Brabbins unleashes the tumultuous music again but to even greater effect. The intensely contrapuntal Epilogue (from 6:40) is forcefully done and the BBCSO brass section has a field day though, in truth, the whole orchestra is on blistering form and fully a match for Previn’s superb LSO. Brabbins brings the symphony to a defiantly abrupt conclusion.
So far in his cycle Martyn Brabbins has steered away from choosing fillers from among the VW ‘usual suspects’—no Lark Ascending or ‘Tallis’ Fantasia. Wonderful though such works are, it’s great to hear much less familiar pieces. He continues that trend here with the first recording—indeed, possibly the first performance—of Saraband ‘Helen’. I had never so much as heard of this piece before. We learn from the notes that VW drafted it in 1913-14 ‘but never completed nor fully orchestrated’ the work. I infer from this statement that the composer gave at least some indication as to orchestral scoring. The piece has been realised by Martyn Brabbins and I wish that Robert Matthew-Walker had given us just a little more detail as to the amount of reconstructive work Brabbins had to do: am I correct, for example, in inferring that there were some indications as to the instrumentation; and was the music we hear complete from first bar to last?
The work is scored for tenor solo, SATB choir and an orchestra comprising (going by the player listing) double woodwind, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, percussion (one player), strings and harp. The words are taken from The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe (1564-1585); the passage begins with the famous line ‘Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?’ VW opens his slow-paced piece with an extended orchestral introduction which is rather noble. The choir begins to sing at 2:50. Once the tenor soloist enters the choir tends to provide a warm homophonic background while the soloist takes the lead. The solo part is ardently lyrical in nature and David Butt Philip sings it very well. Robert Matthew-Walker rightly suggests there are pre-echoes of Serenade to Music, to which I’d add that the choral writing in Saraband ‘Helen’ has its roots in Toward the Unknown Region and A Sea Symphony—though the writing is nowhere near as ambitious as in those two pieces. The piece is not a major discovery but it’s well worth hearing and Martyn Brabbins’ labours have not been in vain.
This latest release in Martyn Brabbins’ VW cycle is a strong addition to the series, containing as it does fine performances of the two symphonies. Simon Eadon’s recorded sound is excellent and the production is in the safe hands of Andrew Keener, who has already fulfilled the role of producer for the cycles by Vernon Handley and Andrew Manze.