wed 24/10/2018

Prom 17, Murray, BBC NOW, Brabbyns review – pastoral vistas, with dark shadows | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 17, Murray, BBC NOW, Brabbyns review – pastoral vistas, with dark shadows

Prom 17, Murray, BBC NOW, Brabbyns review – pastoral vistas, with dark shadows

Hubert Parry celebrated as symphonist, choral composer and teacher

Martyn Brabbins - structure and focusAll images BBC/Mark Allan

Two of the major themes in this year’s Proms season are the hundredth anniversaries of the death of Hubert Parry and the end of the First World War. This programme brought those two ideas together, with two works by Parry himself, along with pieces influenced by the war and written in its aftermath by Parry’s pupils Holst and Vaughan Williams. The result was an imaginative if sprawling programme, including some interesting new discoveries, and concluding with a memorable reading of Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony.

Parry was the most accomplished British symphonist of the 19th century, but the Fifth (“Symphonic Fantasia”) does him no favours. Of his five symphonies, this is the only one that has been performed previously at the Proms, as recently as 2010. It is a late work, written in 1912, with an unusual structure of four joined but elided movements. But it has none of the melodic charm of the Second or Third Symphonies, or the dramatic impetus of the Fourth. So programming the Fifth in 2010 was a curious choice, programming it again just eight years later is utterly perplexing – unless the BBC just had the parts to hand....

That being said, this was an excellent performance, with conductor Martyn Brabbins teasing out all of the terse motivic argument and presenting the work in the most lyrical and colourful terms. Last time round, Vassily Sinaisky was more driven and more focussed, but he didn’t find the clarity of texture that Brabbins demonstrated. Sinaisky’s BBC Symphony was on better form, though, than the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and the string ensemble here was variable, although the low brass and woodwind (both busy throughout) fared better.

Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending stood out as a lollypop on this programme. Violin soloist Tai Murray (pictured below) took a disciplined approach, with little vibrato and short-breathed phrasing. That was at odds with Brabbyns and the orchestra, who maintained delicate, well-balanced textures. Eventually, I came round to Murray’s approach: there was just too much sophistication and elegance to resist. And she really took off in her long final monologue – spellbinding.Tai Murray

Two choral numbers opened the second half. Hear my words, ye people is straight down the middle Parry, the sort of music he is justly famous for – a large-scale Anglican choral number, unadventurous but beautifully written for the voices. The BBC National Chorus of Wales were on splendid form, clear, warm and focussed. Their chorus master, Adrian Partington, accompanied on the organ, or rather soloed – his masterly handling of the huge instrument highlighted in each of the extended verse introductions. Spirited and suitably emotive vocal solos too from Francesca Chiejina and Ashley Riches, though their contributions were brief. Holst’s Ode to Death is more adventurous. Like the Vaughan Williams symphony that followed, it was written as an immediate response to the composer’s active service in the war. It also dates from just a few years after The Planets, and is in the same spirit. As in the later movements of Holst’s famous suite, we hear ghostly harp and celesta figures, the mystical harmonies moving freely between distant keys. No doubt, this was more of a challenge for the chorus, but they sang it with equal assurance, their balance and tonal control never challenged over the half hour span of the two works.

Like The Lark Ascending, Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony is a Proms favourite, and the programme note informed us that the composer himself had led six Proms performances in the 20s and 30s. I suspect he took a more relaxed approach than Brabbyns did here. Not that Brabbyns seemed fast or hurried, but he always maintained a sense of direction and flow, skilfully shaping and delineating the phrases. The orchestra, now on home territory, gave an excellent performance, the string and woodwind tuttis warm and well balanced. Good solos too from each of the string principals, and from the horn. The offstage trumpet, up in the gallery, was less secure, but was suitably atmospheric. So too was Chiejina, whose offstage solo introduced a grand but tightly argued reading of the final movement. Brabbins’ well-structured phrases combined here with the orchestra’s stately tone, especially from the woodwinds, to make it a dignified and solemn, but still impressively emotive, culmination to a diverse evening.

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