The fourth instalment of Martyn Brabbins’ Vaughan Williams symphony cycle brings us to the serene Fifth. He follows the trend he has set in his previous recordings in this series of coupling the symphonies with unfamiliar works by VW, often in first recordings. The coupling here is especially apposite because the Fifth Symphony has thematic links to VW’s music for Pilgrim’s Progress in all movements bar the second, although the links are most pronounced in the Romanza. The Pilgrim music offered here, recorded for the first time, is particularly interesting though also slightly disappointing, as we shall see.
The Fifth is one of VW’s greatest achievements. Who could have predicted, after the turbulence of the Fourth Symphony and in the midst of the global conflict of World War II, that this composer would produce a symphony which uses what would be the smallest orchestra in all his symphonic canon and which comprises music that applies so much balm to the soul? He composed it between 1938 and 1943 and we are particularly fortunate in that we have a recording of him conducting this great work. Much of the score is serene and beautiful but there are dark undercurrents too. The symphony was dedicated, ‘without permission’, to Sibelius and in his perceptive notes, Robert Matthew-Walker draws some interesting parallels between VW’s symphony and the Finnish master’s Fourth.
Although his comments about the symphony bespeak significant knowledge of the score, I’m mildly surprised that Mr Matthew-Walker doesn’t make more of the thematic links when discussing the connections between the symphony and the then-unfinished opera (or ‘Morality’, as VW called it) Pilgrim’s Progress. The links are at their most explicit in the third movement, the ‘Romanza’, but the only movement in the symphony that doesn’t share some common musical material is the Scherzo. On the other hand, I had always believed that whatever Pilgrim music found its way into the symphony had originated in VW’s lengthy work on the opera. However, Robert Matthew-Walker very plausibly suggests that it’s possible that some of the musical ideas common to both works originated in the symphony and then were further developed in the opera.
Brabbins conducts a fine performance of the Fifth Symphony. In the first movement, the opening material unfolds very naturally. Robert Matthew-Walker draws attention to thematic affinities between the Fifth and Job (1930). There’s a good example of that connection, I think, at 3:35 when we hear a seraphic violin solo, beautifully rendered here by Cellerina Park, leading the BBCSO, which put me in mind of a similar solo passage in Job. At 5:09, just before the Allegro, a dark, three-note figure is heard. This is strongly reminiscent of an ominous motif which is familiar from Pilgrim’s Progress and it recurs repeatedly during the Allegro. Brabbins injects considerable urgency of pace and spirit into the Allegro until he reaches the climax (from 8:42), which he ensures has the requisite nobility and sense of aspiration.
The performance of the crepuscular Scherzo is just as successful. The BBCSO’s strings and woodwind play with great deftness, characterising the music in an ideal fashion. As I listened, an image of the nocturnal revels in A Midsummer Night’s Dream came to mind. At the heart of the symphony lies the wonderful ‘Romanza’. The magical sequence of six chords heard right at the outset—and beautifully voiced by the BBCSO’s string choir—defines the movement. This sequence paves the way for the memorable melody first intoned by the cor anglais of Maxwell Spiers. The music that follows is simply glorious and here it’s played with great warmth and sensitivity by all concerned. At 5:57 the prevailing mood of serenity is somewhat overtaken by a note of greater urgency but it’s not too long before the serene mood is fully restored (8:30); from here on the performance has a glowing radiance to it. At 10:19 a bewitching short violin solo prefaces the last few minutes where a deeply satisfying air of repose is achieved.
The Passacaglia is expertly played and interpreted. In this movement too I detect a clear link with Pilgrim’s Progress, especially in what is effectively the work’s epilogue. This linkage is evident, I believe from the husky viola solo (7:16) that ushers in the epilogue. The viola’s melody is closely related to the restrained but resolute music associated in the opera with Pilgrim’s determination to complete his journey to the Celestial City. This serene epilogue is played with great sensitivity by the BBCSO and it sets the seal gently on a most satisfying performance and interpretation of the Fifth Symphony.
In selecting a coupling for the Fifth Martyn Brabbins has made a very appropriate and, on the face of it, enterprising choice with what is here billed as Scenes adapted from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
I’ve been a firm devotee of Pilgrim’s Progress ever since I first encountered it in Sir Adrian Boult’s magnificent premiere recording for EMI. I’ve only seen one staging of it, though. That was English National Opera’s 2012 production, conducted marvellously by Martyn Brabbins. (I also saw a semi-staged production conducted by Hickox at Symphony Hall, Birmingham some years before that.) The work seems to me to contain so many facets of VW’s compositional style. Perhaps that’s unsurprising because his setting of Pilgrim’s Progress developed and evolved over many years until it was finally staged in 1951. Along the way, VW composed The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains (1922), which Matthew Best recorded for Hyperion in 1990; much of that music later found a home in the opera. He also composed a significant amount of incidental music for a BBC radio adaptation of Bunyan’s morality, which was broadcast in 1943. Matthew Best recorded, also in 1990 for Hyperion, Christopher Palmer’s adapted and abridged version of the radio play under the title A Bunyan Sequence. The complete BBC broadcast from 1943 has been issued by Albion Records (ALBCD023/4).
What Martyn Brabbins and Hyperion give us here is something that sheds additional light on VW’s Pilgrim journey. This is the first recording of incidental music that VW wrote as early as 1906 for a dramatized version of scenes from the first part of Bunyan’s book; this was performed at Reigate Priory. When I received the CD, I assumed that the 13 short numbers would consist of material that I’d recognise from the final version of Pilgrim’s Progress. Such is not the case, however. I was amazed at how little of the musical material presented here found its way into the final score.
The selection begins, as does Pilgrim’s Progress itself, with the orchestra playing the nobly imposing Puritan hymn tune ‘York’. However, in the final version of the score VW gave the tune to the brass section whereas in the 1906 score he had just a string orchestra at his disposal. The BBC Symphony’s string section invest the tune with suitable dignity but it’s not quite the same. Thereafter, very little is at all familiar. The ‘Angel’s Song’, appealingly sung by Kitty Whately, appeared in a developed form in the final score and the choral apotheosis of the Final Scene is recognisable as the origins of the glorious music which VW provided towards the end of Pilgrim’s Progress as Pilgrim enters the Celestial City. Much of the remaining music was discarded, though. I’m reluctant to criticise Robert Matthew-Walker’s notes, which are in many ways excellent, as is his wont, but I wish he’d been able to provide a bit more information about the context for VW’s incidental music. For example, there’s a setting for a quartet of male voices (TTBB) of ‘Down among the dead men’; I have no idea how that fitted into a Bunyan scenario. Of course, it may well be that little contemporary information about the 1906 Reigate project has survived: for example, I can see no reference to it in Michael Kennedy’s book The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1980 edition), nor does Ursula refer to it in her biography of VW: perhaps the incidental music was not considered a sufficiently significant composition.
I said at the outset of this review that I felt slightly disappointed with the Pilgrim’s Progress music. Largely, that disappointment arises because we’re not told much about the Reigate production in the notes and how the music fitted into it. Of course, it may well be that such information no longer exists. Just as bewildering as the inclusion of ‘Down among the dead men’ is the appearance—and relevance to Bunyan—of a seven-verse folk song, ‘Flower-girls song’. Here it’s sung unaccompanied by Emily Portman and, frankly, it slightly overstays its welcome. Another solo song is ‘Shepherd’s song’, which Marcus Farnsworth sings. The words are those of Psalm 23 but what really interests me is the tune. It is, surely, a folk song and possibly one collected by VW; I wonder what the tune is.
The incidental music, which I assume is here given complete, comprises thirteen numbers, some of them very short. Some of the music which was discarded and didn’t find an eventual home in the opera is interesting—I think especially of the touching ‘The death of Faithful’ for string orchestra—but the incidental music seems to me to be very much a first step on the road to what became the opera Pilgrim’s Progress. I suppose I’d hoped this incidental music would fill a sizeable gap in our knowledge of the evolution of that great work but, in all honesty, it doesn’t really achieve that. Nonetheless, it’s valuable to have the music on disc and available to study.
The compelling reason for buying this CD, however, is the performance of the Fifth Symphony. It’s a fine one; indeed, I think it may be the highlight to date of Martyn Brabbins’ cycle.
It only remains to say that producer Andrew Keener and engineer Simon Eadon have done a fine job; the recorded sound is excellent.
There are four more symphonies to come from Martyn Brabbins and the BBCSO. I hope we don’t have to wait unduly long for them though recording large-scale works such as VW symphonies is just the sort of activity that may fall victim to the present Covid restrictions.