Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Sinfonia antartica (Symphony No 7) (1952)
Symphony No 9 in E minor (1957)
Elizabeth Watts (soprano)
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
rec. 2022, Watford Colosseum, UK
Hyperion CDA68405 
This is the final instalment of Martyn Brabbins’ Vaughan Williams symphony cycle. I’m sure Hyperion’s original intention was that the series would all be released in time for the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Covid restrictions must have disrupted the recording schedule, but in the grand scheme of things, the fact that this last instalment has arrived early in 2023 is of little consequence. There’s a minor departure in that all the previous releases have included as a ‘filler’ at least one very unfamiliar short piece. However, the inclusion of two meaty symphonies on the same CD rules that out on this occasion.
As is well known, for what was his seventh symphony, VW drew upon his music for the Ealing Studios film Scott of the Antarctic. In his thoughtful booklet essay, Robert Matthew-Walker makes an important point which is easily forgotten: VW was forty at the time of Captain Scott’s ill-fated expedition. Consequently, he would have been very well aware of the heroic tragedy at the time. One thing that I didn’t know until reading that essay is that VW was so enthused by the project when he was approached that he composed some eighteen minutes of music (all of which was used in the film) even before Ealing put Scott of the Antarctic into production; he did this without seeing a script or storyboard. In the years following the release of the film, VW composed his five-movement symphony, which was premiered by Barbirolli and the Hallé in 1952
Brabbins makes a strong case for Sinfonia antartica. The opening pages are spacious; the music sounds darkly majestic. I also like the sound of the glittering icy percussion at 2:47. The voices of Elizabeth Watts and ladies from the BBC Symphony Chorus are arguably a bit too present; they sing really well, but personally I prefer a bit more distance on the voices; they should sound as if they’re calling from far away on the Antarctic ice. Also unusually present is the sound of the Polar wind. Instead of using a conventional wind machine, Hyperion have opted to use audio samples of actual wind. Of course, the sound is realistic: some may feel it’s a bit close, but I like the natural sound of the icy gales. The same considerations regarding the voices and wind come into play at the end of the finale. Throughout much of this movement, Brabbins brings out the ominous nature of the music, though towards the end a sense of heroism also comes through.
The Scherzo is in a somewhat lighter vein: as Michael Kennedy has written, VW “peoples [the scene], first with the ships setting out on their voyage…. and then with whales and penguins”. The music is full of colour and invention, and the penguins add a welcome touch of gawky humour. All of this comes out in Brabbins’ spirited performance. Such light-hearted memories soon vanish, however, as we’re confronted by ‘Landscape’. The eerie menace of the opening sounds as full of foreboding as I’ve ever heard it on disc. Hereabouts, VW’s scoring is amazingly inventive and atmospheric, and the BBCSO and the engineers make sure that every detail tells. There is real tension in this implacably slow-moving music. From 7:40 the darkly imposing ascent to the top of the glacier – and the movement’s fearful climax – is gripping. When the climax arrives (8:32), it’s an immense, imposing moment, underpinned by the organ. Brabbins is just as successful in his handling of the movement’s glacial, hushed close.
Much-needed contrast arrives with the ‘Intermezzo’, recalling nostalgic memories of the explorers’ home lives. The present performance is warm and lyrical, at least until VW introduces an ominous tone towards the end. In the march that opens the finale, Brabbins brings out the power and energy in the music – and a determined mood also. The reprise of music heard right at the start of the symphony is potent, and then (from 7:35) the cold ending is devastating; implacable nature has defeated even the most indomitable of human spirits. Ideally, I’d like both the female voices and the sound of the wind to be more distant, but that’s a minor cavil: the performance of both the movement and of the symphony as a whole is gripping.
I first started my exploration of VW’s symphonies more than fifty years ago when, as a student, I bought the boxed set of LPs of Sir Adrian Boult’s EMI cycle. (That purchase was made at Bank’s music shop in York, the imminent closure of which has just been announced: a sad sign of the times.) When I first acquired the full set I wasn’t sure what to make of Sinfonia antartica, but over the years my admiration for it has increased greatly and I now regard it as one of VW’s significant achievements. Here, it receives a performance and recording that are worthy of the score.
The Ninth Symphony was not exactly acclaimed when it was premiered in 1958 and Sir Malcolm Sargent attracted a lot of the blame for that because it was felt that he conducted the work’s premiere poorly. Just recently I had the opportunity to hear that Sargent performance; whilst it was far from perfect – allowances surely must be made for the lack of adequate rehearsal time – it was better than I had expected (review). Sargent, of course, had the disadvantage that he had no performance history on which to draw. Martyn Brabbins comes to this recording without that constraint; however, even though the symphony is some 65 years old, it could scarcely be said to be a staple of the repertoire even now.
I don’t believe that VW regarded the Ninth as an envoi – Robert Matthew-Walker reminds us that when he died there were sketches for two more symphonies among his papers – but even so he must have had a sense of time running out. Arguably, the symphony is Janus-like: in some ways VW does look back – he quotes in the second movement a theme used in his early tone poem The Solent and which he had later incorporated into A Sea Symphony – but there are forward-looking aspects too, not the least of which is the inclusion of a flugelhorn and a trio of saxophones in the scoring.
Brabbins does the symphony very well. The craggy grandeur of the opening theme is very successfully realised – and it’s interesting to hear it in proximity to the not-dissimilar opening theme of Sinfonia antartica. Brabbins brings out the elemental nature of the music. Later on, though (6:15), a beautifully played violin solo ushers in an episode of tranquillity, though the addition of the saxophones ensures that the closing pages have, above all, a sense of mystery. The quotation from The Solent is an important element in the Andante sostenuto second movement. Just as crucial, though, is the rather malevolent rhythmic tattoo played by brass and drums that crops up again and again. Notwithstanding the recurrence of that motif, calm music predominates. That said, the calm is surely uneasy; that’s definitely what I hear in Brabbins’ performance. He brings out the many nuances in VW’s resourceful scoring and displays keen empathy for the many passages of beauty in this movement.
The saxophones add their distinctive timbre to the lolloping Scherzo. The rhythms, and especially the instability occasioned by the frequent use of three-against-two, are completely characteristic of VW. In this performance, the rhythms are given great vitality. The account of the Finale is full of sensitivity; Brabbins is highly attentive to the melancholy and mystery in the writing. In the second half of the movement, the music has cumulative power, rising to a final climax of granite potency (10:39). Even now, after many years of enjoying this symphony, I find the ending extraordinary with those washes of harp sound and the mysterious strangeness of the saxophones. When I wrote about the Sargent premiere, I commented that this ending didn’t really come off: I speculated that “[p]erhaps it’s a gesture and effect that needed more experience of the score and more rehearsal time to get absolutely right.” Brabbins and the BBCSO nail it.
This very fine account of the Ninth wraps up a cycle that has been a distinguished contribution to the discography of Vaughan Williams’ symphonies. Martyn Brabbins has consistently displayed – as he does on this disc – great empathy for the music; he knows how to make it work. His cycle has been a very fine achievement and he’s been aided and abetted at every turn by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. They’ve played all the symphonies very well indeed and their collective skills are again on display on this disc. The recordings have been consistently well engineered and I’m inclined to think that engineer Simon Eadon has saved his very best till last; both of these recordings are highly successful, with the sound for Sinfonia antartica a singular achievement – even now, recalling the opening of ‘Landscape’ sends a tingle down my spine. The whole project has benefitted enormously, I’m sure, from the fact that Andrew Keener has produced the cycle; he’s a seasoned veteran of capturing VW’s music on disc.
If you’ve been collecting Martyn Brabbins’ cycle, you probably won’t need any encouragement from me to invest in this final disc.
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