BBC SSO / Brabbins

City Halls, Glasgow

As we near the end of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Ralph Vaughan Williams, conductor Martyn Brabbins concluded his latest programme on the podium for the BBC Scottish with the composer’s Fifth Symphony before he directs the soundtrack of Scott of the Antarctic with a screening of the 1948 film on Saturday.

The score of the latter would be reworked as Vaughan Williams’ Seventh, the Sinfonia Antarctica, five years later, and it was the revised 1951 version that we heard the Fifth. Although its thematic material is richly various through its four movements, Brabbins made a coherent argument for its overall shape. The symphony begins with solos from the first horn and principal flute – guests Christopher Gough and Katherine Bryan here – and has a colourful and fun Scherzo second movement before a melancholy third movement Romanza featuring further solos from among the winds and strings.

Vaughan Williams dedicated the symphony to Sibelius, who admired it, and the musical material of the outer movements owes much to the Finnish composer, with specific echoes of his late work, Tapiola, which appropriately opened the concert. As impressive as they were in last weekend’s Wagner, the SSO strings were on superb form again here, the violas in particular at the start. Brabbins found a really sparky narrative drive in the work, with its evocation of a bleak and mystical environment, lashed by wind and rain.

However, the main attraction for many on what was a well-attended Thursday evening was the gentler autumnal sound of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs. Unlike Kurt Weill, Strauss finds a very short way from Spring to September in his setting of the words of Herman Hesse, and soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn brought a beautifully shaped, never indulgent, legato to that journey.

Having been a stalwart of Scottish Opera’s outdoor operas in its Edington Street car park during lockdown, Llewellyn has her own Glasgow following, alongside that of Brabbins, which doubtless helped at the box office. She also has her own distinctive way with the Four Last Songs, lighter of voice than many, but expressive and alive to all the details of interaction with the instrumentalists. Those included fine solo playing by orchestra leader Laura Samuel and lyrical work from flutes and piccolo.

The intimations of mortality in Hesse’s Beim Schlafengehen and Eichendorff’s Im Abendrot may have been more obviously realised by a fuller mezzo voice, but Llewellyn brought an individual ambiguity as well as a musical clarity to the cycle.

Keith Bruce