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

United KingdomUnited Kingdom 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

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