United Kingdom Bax, Francis-Hoad and Vaughan Williams: Marcus Farnsworth (baritone), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins (conductor), Barbican Hall, Barbican Centre, London, 30.12.2018. (AS)
Bax – November Woods
Frances-Hoad – Last Man Standing
Vaughan Williams – Symphony No.4 in F minor
Arnold Bax is what used to be called a ‘gramophone composer’. In recent decades his cycle of seven symphonies has been recorded by three conductors, Bryden Thomson, David Lloyd-Jones and Vernon Handley, and these conductors and others have made many recordings of his other works. Yet live performances of his orchestral music are pathetically rare. Listening to the wonderful sounds of November Woods, beautifully played by the BBCSO under Martyn Brabbins, one wondered how this could be. Recordings are fine, but even the best of them cannot quite convey the unique quality of Bax’s writing for large orchestral forces as heard live. Alas, part of the problem is the old one of ‘box office’. What to many of us seemed an attractive programme produced an audience sadly thin in numbers.
With Martyn Brabbins at the helm we could be sure that we would be in safe hands, and sure enough, his was a superbly paced, structurally clear performance, with wonderful orchestral clarity and balance, and masterly control of dynamics. On an emotional level his warm, passionate conducting could not have been bettered.
We then heard the world premiere of Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Last Man Standing. This work is written for baritone soloist and large orchestra. The soloist takes the role of a soldier, who at the outset of the First World War is fired up with patriotic feelings, enlists in the British army and then endures the horrors of that war, finding himself ultimately to be the only survivor of his group of friends and colleagues. After the end of the war he revisits the site of the battlefield and sees rows of poppies nestling amongst the graves of those he had known.
The text by Tasmin Collison is direct, clear and pulls no punches. She describes ‘…rats as big as cats grow fat/On the flesh/Of fallen friends/And lice feast on the sluggish blood/Of those men left alive’. Matching the forcefulness of Collison’s words is music by Frances-Hoad which is highly dramatic, beautifully scored and full of imaginative touches, with quotations from popular songs of the period used in strikingly pungent orchestral contexts.
The vocal line sounded very tricky, and was negotiated by Marcus Farnsworth with skill, beauty of tone and strong characterisation. It was a semi-staged production, and Farnsworth was called upon to portray his experience visually from time to time. The playing seemed utterly assured under Brabbins’s direction, and altogether it was an impressive contribution to the series of events that have marked the centenary of the end of the Great War.
Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony seems to have slipped back in popularity within the canon of the composer’s nine symphonies and is now rarely heard. Perhaps its grinding dissonances no longer strike today’s audiences with the force experienced by those of older generations, and listeners respond more nowadays to those of the symphonies that have more poetry and quieter means of expression. The Fourth Symphony needs large helpings of vehemence in performance, and this it most certainly received under Brabbins’s direction. But emotional force didn’t entirely dominate, since the conductor was careful not to let it get out of control, and he managed the reflective ending of the first movement with great eloquence, in a way that made it seem highly dramatic in its own right, and not an anti-climax, as it can sometimes be made to seem.
The slow movement had an appropriately menacing quality, imbued on this occasion with ghostly overtones, and the build-up to its climax was superbly managed. After a perfectly judged, but still high-pressure account of the Scherzo the quiet linking passage to the finale sounded particularly full of menace, and the final movement burst forth with precision of attack and superb ensemble, the quiet interlude making a strong impact in its own right. And so to the barnstorming end of the work, delivered with great panache by Brabbins. Altogether it was a performance of great sensibility and insight, and much more than a mere blockbusting experience.