Brabbins and the BBC Symphony in an Inspired Pairing of Earth and Sea


Birtwistle, Vaughan Williams: Elizabeth Llewellyn (soprano); Marcus Farnsworth (baritone); BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 13.10.2017. (CC)

Birtwistle  – Earth Dances

Vaughan Williams – Symphony No. 1, “A Sea Symphony”

This was a typically exploratory programme from the BBC Symphony, marrying a classic of the late twentieth century with Vaughan Williams’ symphonic-choral masterpiece.

Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s Earth Dances was premiered under Peter Eötvös in 1986: I was present at that performance and there was a a palpable sense of something great unfolding in front of us, a genius behemoth, at that first glance dark and ungainly, as time passed emerging as infinitely deep and perfectly judged. There are a lot of notes to Birtwistle’s score, not a single one of which is wasted. One wonders how many performances this piece actually has received since 1986. The ramifications of it continue in Birtwistle’s own music, most specifically in Deep Time (2016), which received its UK premiere with the Staatskapelle Berlin under Daniel Barenboim at this year’s Proms (review); but one should not forget The Shadow of Night (2001) and Night’s Black Bird (2004).

What was most notable about this most recent performance was Brabbins’ holding off the lyric impulse, letting Birtwistle’s “endless melodies” simply speak. In tandem with that was the opening, even more primal than I remember, and the contrast of delicate moments that I had completely forgotten existed. Time and time again, one marvelled at Birtwistle’s exquisite scoring, masterly at every turn. Brabbins ensured that we felt the cumulative energy of the later stages of the work powerfully, a slowly but inexorably moving force that was completely unstoppable. The final silence after the work finished spoke volumes. Sir Harrison was in attendance, the orchestra applauding as enthusiastically as the audience when he moved to the stage (initially it looked like he was content to stay in his stalls seat).

So, from the earth to the ocean: the coupling was Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony, Birtwistle’s huge array of percussion now replaced by seating for the BBC Symphony Chorus. When the chorus arrived, the normal disposition of voices seemed more mixed than usual, resulting in a wonderful homogeneity of sound.

Huge orchestra, huge chorus: perhaps not perfect for the Barbican acoustic, which threatened to overload in passages in full cry. The initial brass fanfare was a touch unfocused, its return far more confident, but there was no doubting the excellence of the BBC Symphony Chorus. The music was brilliantly paced by Brabbins. Elizabeth Llewellyn’s radiant, ringing soprano confirmed her place as one of the best up-and-coming sopranos (her ENO debut was in 2010 as Mimì; she impressed mightily in Puccini’s Rondine at Opera Holland Park in June this year). Her diction was impeccable, and she has the full range dynamically, imperious when flinging out “Flaunt out, O Sea your separate flags of nations,” radiant elsewhere. She was joined by Marcus Farnsworth, winner of the 2009 Wigmore Hall International Song Competition and the Song Prize at the 2011 Kathleen Ferrier Awards. He participated in Iain Bell’s In Parenthesis at the Royal Opera (review) and in the Barbican performance of Adams’ Doctor Atomic in April this year (review). On this occasion, though, Farnsworth sounded reedy, the higher strata of Vaughan Williams’ writing feeling distinctly high for him. He was literal in the interior ruminations of “On the beach at night alone” (the choir far better in its attunement to the writing, the tempo perfectly chosen by Brabbins, the horn quartet particularly ravishing).

It was the Scherzo (“The Waves”) that emerged as a tour de force, a chorus-only movement, jubilant and sparkling. The semi-chorus in the finale, “The Explorers”, confirmed the excellence of the choral contribution. This finale exuded breadth thanks to Brabbins’ intensely vocal realisation of the score (he literally let it breathe). A pity that the difference in standard between the soloists was so obvious when they were juxtaposed (“Sailing these seas or on the hills”) and that Farnsworth’s words were almost lost at “For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go”.

The repertoire pairing was exemplary for this concert, even though it did lead to an extended interval and later home-time; and it was good to be reminded of the stature of both pieces. The concert confirmed Brabbins’ excellence; this was the BBC Symphony on top form in a very demanding concert indeed. Bravo!

Colin Clarke

Print Friendly


Leave a Reply

Recent Reviews


Season Previews

  • NEW! Spitalfields Music Festival 2017 in December __________________________________
  • NEW! Bampton Classical Opera in 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! The 2018 Lucerne Summer Festival __________________________________
  • NEW! World Premiere of The Nutcracker and I, by Alexandra Dariescu in December at Milton Court __________________________________
  • NEW! Hampstead Garden Opera Bring The Enchanted Pig to Highgate in November __________________________________
  • NEW! Leeds Lieder’s Forthcoming Schubert Song Series in Leeds and Sheffield __________________________________
  • NEW! Svetlana Zakharova and Bolshoi Stars Bring Amore to the London Coliseum in November __________________________________
  • NEW! Tom Green and Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife Premieres on 15 October in Cardiff __________________________________
  • UPDATED! English National Ballet’s 2017 – 2018 Autumn/Winter Season __________________________________
  • NEW! Contemporary Music from Manchester’s Psappha in 2017-18 __________________________________
  • NEW! I Musicanti’s ‘Alexandra and the Russians’ at St Johns Smith Square, 2017-18 __________________________________
  • NEW! Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvazov’s Return to London in May 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! St John’s Smith Square announces its 2017/18 Season __________________________________
  • NEW! The Pierre Boulez Saal’s 2017/18 Season in Berlin __________________________________
  • NEW! Birmingham and Beyond: Ex Cathedra in 2017/18 __________________________________
  • NEW! The Glyndebourne Opera Cup and Glyndebourne in 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s 2017/18 Season __________________________________
  • Subscribe to Review Summary Newsletter

    Reviews by Reviewer

    News and Featured Articles

  • NEW! Carly Paoli is ‘Singing My Dreams’ at the Cadogan Hall in February 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! A Composer Speaks Up for the Environment: An Interview with Margaret Brouwer __________________________________
  • NEW! Twelve Years of Celebrating Malcolm Arnold in Northampton __________________________________
  • NEW! What is the Critic’s Job? A Review of A. O. Scott’s Recent Book __________________________________
  • NEW! English Music Festival in Yorkshire Lifts the Lid Off an English Treasury __________________________________
  • NEW! A FULLY STAGED PILGRIM’S PROGRESS IN ORLEANS, MA __________________________________
  • NEW! JIŘÍ BĔLOHLÁVEK (1946-2017) AND THE CZECH CONDUCTING LEGACY __________________________________
  • NEW! JUSTIN DOYLE DISCUSSES MONTEVERDI WITH MARK BERRY __________________________________
  • NEW! Katie Lowe Wins the 2017 Elizabeth Connell Prize __________________________________
  • NEW! ITINÉRAIRE BAROQUE 2017: TON KOOPMAN TALKS TO COLIN CLARKE __________________________________
  • NEW! The Royal Opera House in Mumbai is Restored to its Former Glory __________________________________
  • NEW! iSING! – International Young Artists Festival in Suzhou, China __________________________________
  • NEW! A Riveting Kokoschka’s Doll from Sir John Tomlinson and Counterpoise __________________________________
  • Archives by Week

    Archives by Month

    Search S&H