BBC Symphony Orchestra – Martyn Brabbins conducts Beowulf and Job

Iain Bell

Beowulf [BBC commission: world premiere]

Vaughan Williams

Job: A Masque for Dancing

Charles Styles (tenor) & Ruth Wilson (narrator)

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 17 March, 2023
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

There have been quite a few film versions of the Anglo-Saxon epic myth Beowulf, a cinematic gift that keeps on giving with a ferocious dragon, a dashing hero, and lots of blood, teeth and talons. And now there is Iain Bell’s Beowulf, a cantata (or oratorio?) for big orchestra, no-less-big chorus, tenor and a narrator.

Stuart Skelton was closely involved in the BBC commission but had to withdraw at short notice because he was unwell. Charles Styles stepped up to the mark, projecting a rather winning heroic vulnerability and defiance in music Skelton may well have taken more in his stride.

But as far as engagement with this magnum opus – fifty minutes – was concerned, that was about it. Bell’s style is tonal, sub-Wagnerian, massively scored, with a monolithic choral sound sometimes leavened by the sort of celestial rapture Holst used for the fade at the end of The Planets, generous overlays of percussion doing duty as colour, and on the evidence here Bell is not much of a tunesmith. But the main problem is the text – here a version by R. M. Liuzza – which mostly tells the story of Beowulf, Grendel the dragon, Grendel’s mum, much slaughter, gaping wounds, etc. So, you had Ruth Wilson, amplified but inaudible, narrating, Styles plus surtitles narrating, the chorus ditto – and it became wearing, if only because the unvaried, dense score didn’t really do much for the words. Beowulf’s death was about the only point when they got anywhere near hitting it off. Martyn Brabbins and his forces did it proud, however.

From that to the sublime, Vaughan Williams’s Job: A Masque for Dancing, in a marvellous performance. Brabbins had a clear ear for how sure-footed Vaughan Williams was in this ballet score – he could draw a character with a few broad brushstrokes, he could write genuinely fast as well as slow music, he was a magnificent orchestrator, and his melodies always hit the spot. For the BBCSO players the music was like water to a thirsty person, with spellbinding vivid, spacious and serene results. For which much thanks.

This concert is due for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday April 18 at 7.30 p.m.

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