Vaughan Williams Symphonies 7 & 9 – BBCSO/Martyn Brabbins – Hyperion

0 of 5 stars

Vaughan Williams
Sinfonia antartica (Symphony No.7) *
Symphony No.9 in E-minor

Elizabeth Watts (soprano) *
Women of the BBC Symphony Chorus*

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins

Recorded at Watford Colosseum on 13 & 14 March 2022

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: April 2023
CD No: CDA68405
Duration: 79 minutes



As with previous issues in Martyn Brabbins’s Vaughan Williams cycle, not as it turns out a permanent casualty of the pandemic, these are deeply considered performances likelier to satisfy initiates than wow the uncommitted. The pairing of the two symphonies least likely to find their way onto concert programmes until recently is fascinating in itself, confirming an enduring shift in compositional impulse from the contrapuntal to the cinematic. It also brings Brabbins into direct competition with Andrew Manze, perhaps the most radical of recent VW interpreters on disc. While both series were produced by Andrew Keener, the sound engineer usually Simon Eadon, the results are readily distinguishable.

Ever the iconoclast, Manze surprised with a Seventh in which the superscriptions, finely read by Timothy West, cannot be programmed out and whose orchestral content is balanced more brightly and sharply than usual. Two respects in which Brabbins (alone) has less in common with André Previn (plus Ralph Richardson). With both newcomers VW’s Soviet-style piano writing and idiosyncratic flecks of glitter, tuned and untuned, register as they never could in the 1960s. Hyperion’s recordings must be among the last to be made in the Watford Colosseum, a venue currently undergoing transformation. It had a richer, deeper bloom in 2022 than Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall for Manze in 2018. Both realisations give the soprano a more corporeal presence than might have been expected. Brabbins has audio samples of ‘real’ wind where Manze boasted some kind of electronic kind of wind machine. Opt for Brabbins if you think it a good idea to convey the intransigence of the landscape by trudging implacably through it. The great organ intervention emerges ‘naturally’ rather than ‘rhetorically’ here and thrill-seekers may find that disappointing, notwithstanding the glorious deep-focus of the sonics. Manze’s organ was avowedly ‘fake’ or at least superimposed from another venue, the player separately credited. If you prefer a softer grain and the ‘authenticity’ of raw nerves anesthetized by the intense cold, Brabbins is your man. Most evocative when rumbling in subterranean depths, his percussion is never spotlit to sound larger than life.

In the Ninth, where Manze chose some experimentally deliberate tempos, partly abandoned in his live performance with the LPO last October, Brabbins is more mainstream. Everything flows. Just don’t expect a flow of lava as in the pioneering accounts of Stokowski and Boult. This is patient, humane, (slightly watery?) VW, more lyrical than astringent. Potentially stodgy too when cross-rhythms are sometimes left to fend for themselves, subjective lifting eschewed. The concluding washes of harp and saxophone certainly make their sensational sonic mark but is the resolution (not the right word for so mysterious and multifaceted a farewell) sufficiently hard won? It must be your call.

No room this time for the obscure fillers gracing previous instalments, although Hyperion again provides a copious textual supplement from Robert Matthew-Walker. If the booklet is not always easy to read that’s because so much is packed into it. The choice of artwork is as appropriate as ever, daringly blenched, eschewing frivolity and hype. Which just about sums up the appeal of this series and, perhaps, that of the Hyperion label itself.

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