Martyn Brabbins conducts Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony

4.5 of 5 stars

Vaughan Williams
Symphony No.5 in D
Scenes adapted from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress [1906 incidental music]


Emily Portman (folk singer), Kitty Whately (mezzo-soprano) & Marcus Farnsworth (baritone)
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Singers Quartet

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: October 2020
Duration: 67 minutes



Much taken with this latest release in Martyn Brabbins’s Hyperion/BBCSO Vaughan Williams Symphony series I was conscious that it speaks with a quiet voice, unsensational to a fault. Need that be a bad thing in these frenzied times? One hopes not!

As with previous instalments, its attractions are bolstered by the inclusion of genuine rarities in lieu of the usual makeweights. The coupling here is 1906 incidental music for a dramatised version of Bunyan’s allegory predating VW’s more familiar treatments of the same source material. This will be of surpassing interest to aficionados but is less likely to detain uncommitted listeners. Mavens will forgive the ‘Prelude’ its initially dusty setting of the Scottish Psalter hymn tune ‘York’ for the thrill of discovering the balder two-part harmonisation which reaches its apotheosis as framing device in the finished Pilgrim’s Progress opera (or ‘Morality’ as VW called it) more than four decades later. Similarly what one had assumed to be allusions to the Tallis Fantasia in the finished stage-work are already present in the Alleluias of the ‘Final scene’ here, the Fantasia itself emerging only later. Other elements found their way into subsequent scores, not least the Fifth Symphony. In truth the incidental music is not always terribly compelling in itself, but each shard is given the luxury treatment. Kitty Whately is allocated one of the more obviously accomplished items, ‘The angel’s song’. The role of the Woodcutter’s Boy cum-tea-lady in ENO’s dodgy 2012 production of The Pilgrim’s Progress was one of her early successes. With a different voice type, Emily Portman gives authentic flavour to the unadorned ‘Flower-girl’s song’. Her own material can be sampled at

It will soon be half a century since André Previn and Sir Adrian Boult finished their rival Vaughan Williams Symphony cycles. To have two such ventures on the go seemed an improbable luxury at the time. Now we have so many options to compare and contrast that it becomes difficult to keep track. Then again, Martyn Brabbins is perhaps the most reassuringly ‘central’ of current VW interpreters.  He tends to favour less-radical reinventions and more spacious tempos than, say, Andrew Manze, while skirting over-emphasis or ponderousness. His awareness of texture, never threatening to become an end in itself, means that string lines are less dominant than with Previn’s vintage LSO, only partly a matter of the BBC SO’s relatively un-plush sonority. Sound engineer Simon Eadon and producer Andrew Keener, now working in the space once billed as Watford Town Hall, allow more resonance into the mix than I was expecting, adding to the sense of a naturally distanced unfolding of events. Manze’s Liverpool Fifth (Keener producing) is a shade less relaxed and sounds brighter.

Brabbins’s first movement unfolds calmly (too calmly?) and without suet though, like many conductors, he chooses to make an agogic intervention in the central climax. His comes at the tail end of it, Previn inserting his main rhetorical kink a little earlier. Sir John Barbirolli was prone to this kind of emotive interpolation and as we know VW seemed not to mind, perhaps because his own scores lack the explicit expressive imprecations of Elgar or Mahler. The Scherzo is nothing like Barbirolli’s 1944 version, still faster than any modern rival, but nor does it emphasize the misterioso at the expense of effervescence. The Romanza is glorious (there aren’t many living conductors who can claim to have conducted The Pilgrim’s Progress in the opera house) and everything feels just right. Though only marginally faster than Previn or Slatkin there is nary a hint of West Coast glamour. The Finale is again paced unerringly. Only the composer himself deems no extra and earlier broadening necessary at the radiant close. Yes, the first movement in particular operates at a lower temperature than some will like – Sir Simon Rattle in his recent Prom made the work much more literally a war symphony, its transitions more effortful by design – but dignity and restraint can be just as moving.

More good news. Hyperion’s artwork is apposite and the booklet note by veteran provocateur Robert Matthew-Walker air some favourite theories about the origins of the Fifth Symphony. He sees it by and large as not so much derived from the unfinished ‘Morality’ as providing inspiration for and a bridge to VW’s further work on the project. He is also convincing on the Sibelius connection, pointing up VW’s debts to that composer’s Fourth Symphony, also giving us the curious history of a miscopied timpani part. The physical format of the booklet is only a little difficult to read because so much is packed into it. Strongly recommended.

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