PROM 20: Martyn Brabbins Leads a Thrilling and Unusual Prom

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  PROM 20: Gurney, Beamish, Walton: James Crabb (classical accordion); BBC Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins (conductor) Royal Albert Hall, London, 1.8.2014 (CS)

Gurney: War Elegy
Sally Beamish: The Singing – concerto for accordion and orchestra
Walton: Symphony No.1 in Bb minor


What a pity that the Royal Albert Hall was so sparsely populated on Friday evening, for this enthralling mix of rarities and classics by Gurney, Beamish and Walton was a fantastic event.  Intended as a commemoration of the German declaration of war on Russia which precipitated the First World War precisely one hundred years ago to the day, a small change of programming might have risked diluting the cohering theme, but ‘conflict’ remained at the core of the works performed and under the baton of Martyn Brabbins the BBC Symphony Orchestra played with, by turns, crisp vigour and elegiac poignancy.

Even aficionados might be hard pressed to name many concertos for classical accordion and orchestra but the repertoire is steadily growing in response to rising stars such as the Danish Bjarke Mogensen and Scot James Crabb.  Now relocated to Sydney, Crabb studied in Denmark where there is a strong accordion tradition, and was subsequently appointed professor of classical accordion at the Royal Danish Academy of Music.

With the evening’s scheduled soloist, Anthony Marwood, indisposed, in this BBC Symphony Orchestra Prom Beamish’s Violin Concerto (inspired by Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front) was replaced at short notice by the composer’s concerto for classical accordion and orchestra, The Singing, which was commissioned by the Cheltenham Festival and first performed by Crabb and the Hallé Orchestra under the baton of Martyn Brabbins in 2006.

There was certainly no sign of rushed preparation from either soloist or orchestra, the 25-minute concerto astonishing with its range of colours and textures, and Crabb’s effortless virtuosity  hypnotically drawing the listener into the intertwining ‘songs’ – Gaelic psalms, Celtic working songs, a pibroch (classical music for the Highland Bagpipe), birdsong, and what Beamish herself describes as ‘Gaelic seinn (singing, sounding or playing), to the voices of instruments and of the land itself’.

Inspired by the Highland Clearances of the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – which devastated the landscape and local communities, irreversibly annihilating traditional ways of life – the three-movement The Singing vividly exploits the accordion’s capacity for immense coloristic and expressive diversity.  At times less a ‘song’ and more a wail or scream, perhaps; but, powerfully eloquent in the hands of Crabb, whose lyrical passages pulsed with anguish and an angry sorrow.

Brabbins controlled the pace skilfully.  Developing the accordion’s initial pitch-less rhythms, the conductor drew forth orchestral commentaries which steadily increased in complexity with multiple voices contributing to the contrapuntal conversations.  The opening of the second movement possessed a quasi-spiritual stillness: Crabb’s lamenting theme was shaped with breath-taking beauty.  Beamish complemented the accordion’s textural array with imaginative instrumental colourings, the flutes and oboes producing an airy whistle by blowing across the finger holes of their horizontal instruments, responding to the ‘note-less breathing’ of the soloist’s dirge.  From this pained quietness grew a wild and thrilling reel in the finale, full of defiance and hope.

My only misgiving was that in the resonance of the RAH some of the accordion’s registers and chordal timbres were occasionally absorbed by the brass or full orchestra; indeed, the most powerful moments were the passages for solo accordion where Crabb’s dazzling virtuosity was imposingly apparent – at times he was a one-man band of shrieks, whirls and excited abandon.  But there were some lovely dialogues between the accordion and the string section leaders, Stephen Bryant (leader), Caroline Harrison (viola) and Susan Monks (cello); and the occasional lack of balance did not lessen the emotive force of Beamish’s music.  An encore, an arrangement of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s The Conversation of the Muses – revealed Crabb’s ability to evoke the tender sensibilities and affekts of the Baroque and to produce lines etched with crystalline lucidity from the accordion; his conviction and prowess were winning.

The first item on the programme was equally unfamiliar: Ivor Gurney’s War Elegy, composed in 1919-20 when Gurney was working hard at composition in an attempt to banish the horrors of the trenches, and shortly before he would be certified insane and confined in Barnwood House mental hospital in Gloucester.  The War Elegy was first heard at the Royal College of Music on Thursday 16th June 1921, conducted by Adrian Boult.  Subsequently, it was performed at Canford Summer School in 1988 and by the Gloucestershire Symphony Orchestra in 2003; a CD was released by Dutton in 2006, performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under David Lloyd-Jones (review).

The work begins with a steady, sombre march.  An early draft was entitled ‘Funeral March’, while the second title considered by Gurney was ‘March Elegy’; but War Elegy is simultaneously more precise – the work is a direct response to Gurney’s experiences of Ypres and the Somme – and less precise in emotional tone: a plaintive mood rather than one weighed down by blackness and grief.  Here, Brabbins achieved just the right balance between elegy and loss.

The sullen bass tread of the opening bars built to a beautiful flowering of the tranquil second subject, sonorously played by clarinettist James Burke.  Brabbins controlled the increasingly complex rhythmic arguments and communicated the full range of Gurney’s idioms and influences: complementing the moments of Elgarian pageantry were passages of lightness and grace.  He also carefully balanced the various instrumental voices in the sometimes solid textures: Gurney employs a large orchestra and keeps the contrabassoon and divided celli and basses busy, but Brabbins was mostly successful in guiding the melodic threads to the surface and in grading the climaxes.  The horn and brass chorale-like outbursts were uplifting, just as the more discreet passages drew lovely playing from woodwind and strings.

This was a deeply moving performance, the final bars ebbing heartrendingly into dissolution.  If the structure and orchestration lack absolute control and finesse, Gurney’s expression is profound and sincere, and Brabbins and the BBC SO played with sensitivity and persuasiveness.

Walton’s First Symphony was a long-time in gestation, the finale causing the composer particular difficulties, but when it was first performed in November 1935 (by the BBC SO under Hamilton Harry at the Queen’s Hall) it was clear that this was a work of great musical and national significance.   Brabbin’s reading had truly persuasive momentum, pulsing with brutality in the opening movement, dancing acerbically in the scherzo and, after an Andante marked by a restrained nostalgia, sweeping with optimistic vigour to a heartening conclusion in which timpanist John Chimes – who performed with stunning precision and musicianship throughout the symphony, indeed throughout the entire concert – was joined by his fellow percussionists whose drums, cymbals and tam-tam added to a resplendent brass section to create a resounding close reminiscent of a Beethovenian triumph after conflict, tinged with Shostakovich-like fury.

The BBC SO was on fine form.  The horns’ opening rhythmic stabs introduced an incisive ruthlessness which was picked up by the cellos in their penetrating five-note motif, and Brabbins sustained the sharp rhythmic delineation throughout the movement.  But there were darker currents too: Ruth Bolister’s first movement oboe solo sang with desolate regret, while there was a touching high-bassoon solo from Graham Sheen.  Perhaps in the slow movement the string tone might have been more opulent but they found plenty of bite in the ‘malicious’ Presto.  The opening of the maestoso Finale was broad and stately but rapidly assumed impetus in the brisk, prickly fugal writing.  In the closing passages, Brabbins powerfully established a celebratory and confident pageantry.  An explosive and exultant ending to a thrilling evening.

Claire Seymour

1 thought on “PROM 20: Martyn Brabbins Leads a Thrilling and Unusual Prom”

  1. I am absolutely with you on this assessment. It was a glorious and stereotype-challenging night.

    Being honest, I had only really gone to hear the Walton (which was as exciting and moving as I had hoped), but the serendipity of hearing James Crabb and the Sally Beamish accordion concerto was worth more than I can possibly say. And then the Rameau encore! – which simply went to prove that it is not the instrument, but the player, that makes the music.

    As you suggest, a lot of people missed a stunning evening.


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