Tag Archives: Martyn Brabbins

BBC SSO / Brabbins

City Halls, Glasgow

It’s over 25 years since the BBC SSO performed William Wallace’s “Creation” Symphony in C sharp minor. It was a studio session in Glasgow recorded for BBC Radio 3 and a Hyperion CD. So it’s not before time that conductor Martyn Brabbins included it in his “Sound of Scotland” matinee programme with the same orchestra last Thursday, a performance that sealed its aesthetic and technical worth, but equally pointed to a London-based Scots composer responding in the 1890s to a musical world still starstruck by Wagner, while living amidst the stirring potency of Elgar.

These are the overriding influences in this symphonic representation of the biblical creation story, its dark opening groping steadily and Parsifal-like towards successive peaks through which Wallace demonstrates a mastery of orchestration and structuring. 

Such repertoire is right up Brabbins’ street, his relaxed, authoritative lead capturing the momentousness of the score, almost film-like in its epic ebbing and flowing. The SSO responded with infectious self-belief, going all the way with the first movement’s sugar-coated conclusion, the sunbursts that offer glimpses of character in the occasionally bland Andantino, a scherzo-like Allegro verging on jolly-hockey-sticks joie-de-vivre, and a finale oozing pride and pomp, as if Wallace was saying: “And God created the British Empire, and he saw that it was good”.

Such was the climax to a programme that began with Judith Weir’s tribute to the geometric Swiss painter Paul Klee, her Heroic Strokes of the Bow based on his musically-inspired “Heroische Bogenstriche”, but also mixed and matched a refreshing couple of viola duos with Iain Hamilton’s virile Clarinet Concerto.

Where Weir transforms Klee’s images into sparkling sonic gestures and whirlwind textures, all dramatically threaded through this pellucid performance, Hamilton’s early concerto proved an eye-opener for those more familiar with the acerbic rigour that dominates much of his later music. Soloist Richard Plane had the full measure of the piece, packing his delivery with physical vitality, athletic virtuosity, and where called for, sweet lyrical charisma.

Why the interspersed viola duos? It just seemed, Brabbins explained, an opportune moment to showcase the SSO’s front desk principals – Scott Dickinson and Andrew Berridge – who had used the restrictions during Covid to seek out new repertoire for themselves. Here were two of a still-growing collection: James MacMillan’s Canon for Two Violas; and the world premiere of Camino by none other than the unassuming Brabbins.

There was a satisfying complementarity between both works, the plaintive intimacy of MacMillan’s, with its wistful melodic charm and softly intermeshing complexities, countered by the sparkier interactions of Brabbins’ Camino, its more impulsive introspection inspired by his daughter’s solitary pilgrimage along the Camino Santiago de Compostela. In each case, Dickinson and Berridge brought accomplishment and poetic empathy to their performances.

Ken Walton

Recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3

BBC SSO / Scott of the Antarctic

BBC SSO / Scott of the Antarctic

City Halls, Glasgow

Whatever the modern viewer might think of Ealing Studios’ 1949 adventure film Scott of the Antarctic, with its Boys Own derring-do and plucky stiff-upper-lip, it’s worth remembering it was a child of its time.

It was Ealing’s first colour movie, scripted in the wake of the Second Word War, with the clipped lines of Sir John Mills as the quintessential “English” hero alongside such notable other castings as Kenneth More, Derek Bond and James Robertson Justice, even early sightings of a certain Christopher Lee and Dandy Nichols. Directed by Charles Fend, it recounted the bittersweet fortunes of of Scott’s tragic 1910-12 expedition, which in the 1940s would still have been fresh for the telling. And it did so with some spectacular camera work.

What we shouldn’t forget is the brilliantly moody and emotive film score composed by Vaughan Williams – especially this year when the musical world has been celebrating the 150th anniversary of his birth – and that was the purpose of this wonderfully fluent “Live in Concert” screening featuring the BBC SSO, the women of the Glasgow Chamber Choir and soprano Katie Coventry, under the baton of the super-efficient Martyn Brabbins.

That it coincided with the anniversary was, it should be said, an accident of circumstances. The original intention by the event production company Big Screen Live and its creator Tommy Pearson, working with global film production company StudioCanal, was to stage it in 2020, but Covid put paid to that. Pearson masterminded the preparation of the film, overseeing the excision of the music from the original soundtrack, not an easy task, he explained, given that the score didn’t exist – as is the case nowadays – on a separate track from the spoken dialogue.

A sure sign of success in such ventures – where the orchestra performs in real time to the projected film – is when the orchestra’s physical presence gets forgotten. So smooth was Brabbins’ engineering of its entries and exits that it simply felt like a regular night at the movies, but with the musical dimension infinitely more visceral, and rather refreshingly no mass exodus as the credits rolled! 

The eeriness of the wordless female voices, over which Katie Coventry (a last-minute replacement for the indisposed Elizabeth Watts) cast her own siren-like descant, possessed a haunting, palpable otherworldliness. Vaughan Williams’ bold harmonies and uncompromising orchestral textures played on equal terms with the film’s awesomely crisp snow-filled camera work. And how that slowly ascending motif, appearing over and over again, matched the arduous but doomed march for survival of Scott’s diminishing team. Its ominous inexorability took on a life and soul of its own in this illuminating context.

Pearson, in his opening introduction, also explained that music originally discarded from the final edit had been judiciously reinstated for this performance, but more intriguingly that he had also created a concert prelude out of Vaughan Williams’ used and unused material. It proved an added fascination, rather like the film outtakes you get these days on a modern DVD, but as a foretaste rather than a tail-end curiosity. 

It also reminded us that Vaughan Williams later made his own full capital from the ideas, when he incorporated many of them in his “Antarctic” Symphony, completed in 1952. 

Ken Walton

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

BBC SSO / Brabbins

City Halls, Glasgow

A big concert with two soloists and a well-loved conductor on the podium, the SSO’s live broadcast from Glasgow looked a terrific programme on paper, but did not quite cohere in performance, even if every part of it had something to enjoy.

The second half pairing of Ernest Chausson’s Poeme de l’amour et de la mer and Claude Debussy’s much better known La mer did serve to illustrate how two contemporaries of the same nation might approach the same broad subject in an entirely different way. As even those not familiar with the work of Martyn Brabbins might expect of the music director of English National Opera, the latter was full of drama, and built beautifully to the climactic third movement “Dialogue of the wind and the sea”, the unfolding orchestration a captivating use of the vast forces onstage.

Chausson’s songs, setting the poetry of Maurice Bouchor, also make for a piece of scale, but owe much to contemporary German Romanticism. Mezzo Dame Sarah Connolly did not really sing them like Mahler or Strauss, however, taking a rather more narrative approach, which was enhanced, rather than in any way diminished, by her reference to the score. With a bassoon-led instrumental interlude separating the two texts, the shape of the work was as clear as that of the Debussy, and first cello Rudi de Groot added a lovely solo to the second one. Although it was probably undetectable to radio listeners, there were a few moments in the hall where Connolly’s immaculate diction was a little swamped by the orchestra.

Why Debussy’s early March ecossaise sur un theme populaire, which opened the concert, is rarely heard, particularly from Scottish orchestras, is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps it is a little Brigadoon, but as the Frenchman wrote it, to order, more than half a century before that movie, it is difficult to dismiss the piece as in any way kitsch. And as a celebration of the oft-cited, if historically dubious, “Auld Alliance”, it would surely be popular with local audiences. Again, it uses a big orchestra, and even the young Debussy knew well how to make the most of that.

The world premiere in the programme, the new Clarinet Concerto, “Sutra”, by Wim Henderickx for fellow Belgian Annelien van Wauwe, also contained some liquid noises, not only in the electronics that form a crucial element of its structure, but also in the playing required of the lower strings. There are a lot of different ingredients in the score, with many of the ideas coming from the soloist and dedicatee.

Like violinist Elena Urioste, she combines her musical practice with yoga tuition, and the disciplines of meditation and concentration are themes of the central two movements. Only in the third one did the work become at all virtuosic, with a step up in tempo, a speedy Balkan melody line and a big band sound from the orchestra.

Elsewhere the players were required to breathe audibly, both through and without their instruments, and there were a number of vocal exchanges between soloist and ensemble. It may be a box-fresh composition, but there was something very 1970s about much of this, as well as in the use of wine glasses among the percussion, and in Scott Dickinson’s viola solo toward the end. It was tempting to speculate that the composer may have drawn on his teenage prog and jazz listening.

He also gave van Wauwe plenty of opportunity to demonstrate the lower register of the basset clarinet, although the most attractive and exciting passages she had to play seemed to fall within the range of the regular instrument.

Keith Bruce

The concert is available to listen to on BBC Sounds for 30 days.

BBC SSO / brabbins

City Halls, Glasgow

Vasily Kallinikov’s symphonies are not entirely unknown in Scotland. Neeme Järvi recorded them with the RSNO in the late 1990s. Even so, last week’s performance of the First Symphony by the BBC SSO under Martyn Brabbins will have been a discovery moment for most of Thursday’s audience.

Kallinikov lived a life as short as Mozart’s, dying in 1901 aged 35. He was admired by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, hardly surprising when his expressive language is textbook Russian Romanticism, laced with personal fingerprints that define its originality. The most remarkable example, highlighted in this hot-blooded performance, proved to be the opening and close of the second movement, a bold unswerving tick-tock ostinato from the harp, coloured by impressionistic drones that descend progressively through the orchestra.

Brabbins played it straight with the entire symphony, embracing the rich thematic tapestry of the opening Allegro, the lyrical expansiveness of the Andante (featuring a gorgeously prominent cor anglais solo), the ebullience of the Scherzo, and the recapitulative resolve of the finale, within a wholesomely cohesive whole. 

It followed a more familiar Russian warhorse, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1. But this Tchaikovsky was far from routine, pianist Pavel Kolesnikov applying fresh interpretational brushstrokes in liberal doses. His opening gambit was an early indication, the usually crashing chords delivered instead with disarming delicacy and shapeliness, an approach in tune apparently with Tchaikovsky’s own equivocations on the manner of their delivery.

From hereon in, it was Kolesnikov’s freely-expressive gestures that defined the sensuous unpredictability of the performance. Brabbins and the SSO were up for it, too, reacting assiduously to the playful flexibility of his opening movement, the elegiac suppleness of the slow movement and the resolute inevitably of the finale.

Kolesnikov satisfied unending applause with the delicate simplicity of a Chopin encore. It was truly exquisite.

Ken Walton

Pictured: Pavel Kolesnikov

BBC SSO / Brabbins / Osborne

City Halls, Glasgow

The story goes, told in a radio broadcast by Aaron Copland himself, that the spelling of his family name resulted from the edgy twang of the Glaswegian patois. A Clydeside border official mistakenly took Kaplan – the family name his migrating Lithuanian parents gave when alighting in Glasgow en route to a new life in New York – to be Copland, which it can so easily be when expressed in the Glaswegian tongue.

Copland’s musical accent, in such evocative works as Appalachian Spring and Quiet City, could hardly be more different. There’s no harshness in these contrasting evocations of wide open landscape and urban isolation, just a quietly intense optimism expressed through lucid, transparent colours and purified, fresh air harmonies. 

These represented the softer side of this Radio 3 broadcast by the BBC SSO, conducted by Martyn Brabbins, against which the subversive Soviet wit of Shostakovich offered the perfect counterbalance. Two of the latter’s works – the ebullient Piano Concerto No 2, with Steven Osborne as soloist, and the pithy concert suite compiled from his music for Shakespeare’s Hamlet – were the acid content.

If it took a moment or two for the atmospheric layers of Appalachian Spring to bed in, what followed was the very stuff of sentimentalised American pastoralism. But Brabbins never allowed sentiment to over-dominate. The emerging wind solos remained suffused with charm but laced with intent. There was sparkle as well as glow in the vivid folksy references, innocent passion in Copland’s human characterisations, and honest magic in the signature appearance of the famous Shaker melody, Simple Gifts. 

The shift to the Shostakovich concerto was all the more incendiary as a result. Short and snappy – it lasts just over 20 minutes – its outer movements are like delirious fairground rides to the sumptuous lyrical calm of the central Andante. Osborne played cautiously with his tempi, relying on disciplined, needle-sharp articulation and feverish insistence to create the thrills. His slow movement, so moodily Rachmaninov, was meltingly luxurious, the SSO equally aglow.

After the interval, in which presenter Jamie MacDougall added a track from Osborne’s superb new CD duetting with fellow pianist Paul Lewis, it was back to Copland and the sublime reflective tranquility of Quiet City, the dreamlike solos of Mark O’Keefe (trumpet) and James Horan (cor anglais) raptly interwoven within Brabbins’ seamless reading.

Shostakovich had the final word, and how bizarre was that for those of us used to the British view of Hamlet? Having written the original incidental music for a 1932 Moscow production by the avant-garde director-designer Nikolai Akimov, whose intent was to turn a tragedy into an absurdist satire, the eventual concert suite retains every ounce of that anarchy. 

Ophelia is given the cabaret treatment, the Requiem – complete with Dies Irae theme – reeks of the macabre, as if Brecht’s Berlin of the 1920s has been transported to 1930s Russia. This performance got the translation, and accent, spot on.
Ken Walton

Available to listen to on BBC Sounds

BBC SSO / Dvorak / MacMillan

City Halls, Glasgow

Sometimes the periphery of a programme outshines its intended core. There’s an element of that in this Radio 3 broadcast by the BBC SSO under Martyn Brabbins. For at its heart is a performance of Dvorak’s gloriously lyrical and substantial Cello Concerto featuring the highly popular Sheku Kanneh-Mason as soloist, the impact of which is lessened by moments of inconsistent tuning, particularly those high solo reaches towards the end of the opening movement.

That’s a pity, because otherwise there is much in Kanneh-Mason’s performance that shows sure signs of a maturing musical voice. Take the slow movement, where the young cellist colours Dvorak’s plangent lyricism with breathy sighs and yielding subtleties, dispelling the untypical shoddiness of the orchestral opening and finding a warmth and intensity that lingers into the finale. 

It’s an unusual version of the concerto, George Morton’s slimmed-down 2018 arrangement distilling Dvorak’s opulent scoring to chamber orchestra size, much of it to great effect. There’s less tension in the mightiest tuttis, the cello sings through without need to force, all of which contributes to a more easeful appreciation of the music. Brabbins grasps that opportunity, minor skirmishes aside, but the key concern remains those frantic periodic intonation lapses by Kanneh-Mason. 

Wrapped around this mighty concerto is a sublime opener from the pen of American composer Augusta Read Thomas, currently professor of composition at the University of Chicago, and an early seminal work from James MacMillan, Tryst, written for the1989 St Magnus Festival and premiered there by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Thomas’ Plea for Peace – a short ruminating work commissioned four years ago to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Chicago Pile-1, the world’s first controlled nuclear reactor – is both questioning and reassuring. In this alternative version, which replaces the original vocalised soprano solo with a sinuous interchanging of solo flute, oboe and trumpet against a sumptuous backdrop of stings, an austere Coplandesque simplicity prevails, magically so in this haunting, atmospheric performance.

It’s easy to forget the starting point for MacMillan, given the 30 or so years that have passed since such launchpad works as Tryst or The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, and the sheer prolificacy of his output ever since. Here, in Tryst, is a vivid reminder of the rawer 30-year-old, tangible conflicting influences exploding in abundance, yet the distinctiveness that was to become MacMillan’s maturer style piercing through the underlying turmoil.

So yes, there is jagged-edged Messiaen, factory-like Stravinsky (or are those incessant repetitive rhythms more Kenneth Leighton, MacMillan’s university teacher?), and becalming Brittenesque acquiescence; but there is also a driving, defining intent that knits such discordant elements into a powerfully argued entity.

The point is well-made in this gripping performance, which Brabbins steers with brutal excitability, hushed tranquility and consequential theatricality. A cathartic complement to the earlier Thomas.
Ken Walton

Available for 30 days on BBC iPlayer and BBC Sounds

Tectonics online and on-air

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra has announced that its annual weekend of new and experimental music, curated by principal guest conductor Ilan Volkov and events promoter Alasdair Campbell, will go ahead this year on May 8 and 9.

Only weeks after last year’s programme had been announced, the 2020 event was one of the early casualties of the pandemic, with an immediate promise that it would return in 2021.

While audiences will still be unable to fill the many spaces of Glasgow’s City Halls and Old Fruitmarket complex for what has become a hugely popular event, a full programme of pre-recorded online performances and late-night broadcasts on BBC Radio 3 is promised this year.

The orchestra has three broadcast concerts before then, two of them also available to view on the BBC iPlayer. The second of those is a 50th birthday concert by Steven Osborne, who is celebrating that same anniversary with a recital at London’s Wigmore Hall on Friday March 12. The Glasgow concert is on Thursday, April 22 and is conducted by Martyn Brabbins. In a programme of music by Copland and Shostakovich, Osborne plays the Russian’s Piano Concerto No.2, which was written a birthday present for the composer’s son, Maxim. It is bracketed by Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite and Quiet City, and the concert concludes with the suite Shostakovich made from his music for an avant-garde 1930s production of Hamlet.

Earlier in April, violin and piano duo Elena Urioste and Tom Poster, whose kaleidoscopic home music sessions were one of the online hits of lockdown, join the orchestra to co-direct a programme entitled “Dreamscapes”. The title work, for violin and chamber orchestra is by Brazilian composer Clarice Assad, and is based on the composer’s researches into Rapid Eye Movement sleep. It is preceded by Arvo Part’s atmospheric and haunting Spiegel im Spiegel and Gerard Finzi’s Eclogue for Piano and Strings, and followed by Mendelssohn’s D Minor Concerto for Violin, Piano and String Orchestra, 54 years after the orchestra broadcast the UK premiere of the work.

The SSO is also in action next week, again under Brabbins and again available to view on the BBC i-Player. Sheku Kanneh-Mason is the soloist for the Dvorak Cello Concerto, performed on Thursday March 11 in George Morton’s reduced orchestration. The concert begins with contemporary American composer Augusta Read Thomas’s Plea for Peace and concludes with Sir James MacMillan’s signature 1989 work, Tryst.

Passing The Baton

Charisma, not ego, makes a great conductor. New RCS professor, Martyn Brabbins, tells KEN WALTON how he plans to impart that message

Wilhelm Furtwangler defined the art of conducting as “the sensualisation of the spiritual and the spritualisation of the sensual”. Herbert von Karajan reckoned, like Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God”, that “something just comes, and it’s the grace of the moment”. Then there’s ego. “Of course I’m not modest,” asserted Bernard Haitink. “If I were, I wouldn’t be a conductor!”

These particular exemplars belong mostly to a bygone era, the youngest, Haitink, having only just retired in 2020 while in his nineties. The world of conducting is becoming increasingly democratised. The untouchable demigods are all but extinct. If not yet completely, they will surely be once Covid is licked. 

It’s within this seam of change that Martyn Brabbins, musical director of English National Opera and long associated with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (associate principal conductor, 1994-2005), is turning his attention to tomorrow’s professionals. “There’s no place for the dictator,” he believes. “I like it when people’s egos are under control, where there’re able to be a decent human being and collaborate well with the players in front of them.”

As the newly appointed visiting professor of conducting at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, expect him to impress such values on the young hopefuls he takes under his wings. Well-respected by the many major orchestras he has conducted around the world, Brabbins practises exactly what he preaches. Musicians admire him for his slick musical efficacy and no-nonsense efficiency. He knows the score – literally. When orchestras are hit by last-minute conductor call-offs and difficult repertoire needs rescuing, the call invariably goes out: Get Brabbins! 

This is not his first association with the RCS. He tutored there when it first began offering conducting courses in the early Noughties. Why come back? “The time is right”, says the 61-year-old, whose own career has taken him from studies in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and winning the 1988 Leeds Conductors’ Competition, to being one of the busiest international conductors on the planet.  

Besides his hectic pivotal role at ENO, he is artistic advisor to the Huddersfield Choral Society, a visiting  professor at the Royal College of Music, globe-trots regularly (or did so before the pandemic), and is a ubiquitous presence with the UK’s BBC orchestras, especially at the annual BBC Proms.

“I feel I’m in a much better place to impart useful stuff to aspiring conductors compared to how I was 15 years ago,” he explains. “I’ve done a lot of teaching, at the RCM in London, in Orkney [directing the annual conducting courses run in tandem with the St Magnus Festival], and many other bits in between. 

“Also, the RCS department is thriving. They’ve had some real successes and they’ve got the new Leverhulme Fellows and a very good Masters course which means the Conservatoire attracts some high level emerging conductors.” Alumni include Ryan Bancroft (principal conductor, BBC National Orchestra of Wales), Kerem Hasan (chief conductor, Tiroler Symphonieorchester Innsbruck) and Jessica Cottis (international freelance and principal conductor, Glasgow New Music Expedition). 

RCS alumni Jessica Cottis conducts the Queensland Symphony Orchestra


Equally significant in influencing Brabbins’ decision to return is Michael Bawtree’s appointment last September as administrative head of the department. “In order to make things work you need someone on the ground with whom you have a strong relationship and trust. Michael’s made the whole thing very quickly his own and it’s shaping up in a very positive way,” says Brabbins. 

That’s all good and well, but what of the reality of giving these students an “instrument” to practise on? Violinists have their fiddles, flautists have their flutes, but how do you provide wannabe conductors with their very own symphony orchestra? 

There will, of course, be opportunities for hands-on experience with the RCS’s own symphony orchestra. That, in itself, has encouraged Brabbins to broaden his involvement with the Conservatoire. “I felt I ought to be a presence for the whole Conservatoire if I could be,” he explains. “So we’ve agreed that, once a year, I will do a concert with the student orchestra, and integrate some of the conducting students in the rehearsal process. The most rewarding and interesting bit of teaching conducting is when you have an orchestra at hand.”

More importantly, Brabbins’ has enormous clout with Glasgow’s professional orchestras, and he’s making full use of it. “I’ve already had very good conversations with the SSO,” he reveals, with the intention of making that relationship beyond what it has been over the past 15 years. “We want to achieve a really good integration, and both sides need to get more from that relationship,  ensuring that the orchestra, its management and players have at least some kind of say in who’s chosen by the Conservatoire to be a Fellow. That creates a real sense of ownership.”

It doesn’t stop there. Brabbins has also been speaking to RSNO chief executive Alistair Mackie “so we can embrace the RSNO in all this”. He’s also held talks with Gregory Batsleer, chorus master of the RSNO and SCO, about how to build in experience of choir conducting.  

“Gregory feels there’s a big hole, in that many orchestral conductors really don’t have much idea how to approach amateur choruses, and let’s face it, we have a lot of very good amateur choruses in this country. They are an integral part of our musical fabric. 

“Get all that in place, do it well, and we’re on course to making Glasgow a leading conducting hub,” he predicts. “My students at the RCM don’t get that level of opportunity.”

All of which is worthless without the right calibre of student, and it’s here that Brabbins’ instinct for the future of the conducting profession really matters. “Post-Covid, things won’t get back to the way they were, and maybe that’s a good thing,” he argues. 

“When I was with the BBC Philharmonic last year, chatting to the principal clarinettist, he said: ‘yeah, it’s been wonderful to be shopping local’. He was genuinely pleased that the orchestra, by necessity, had been using UK-based conductors. Maybe musical culture will have to change now, and there won’t be this passionate desire by British orchestras always to seek the next young foreign conductor.”

But even if that does open up more opportunities, it still requires finding the right set of skills for today’s purposes. What does Brabbins look for in his potential recruits? “Some things never change,” he believes. “There are many essentials, but no two people will have the entire combination of these essentials. So when you’re selecting you have to weigh up the strengths. 

“There are obvious things, like musical awareness and musical excellence. I remember talking to [Jorma] Panula, the famous Finnish conducting teacher, and his first criteria is that the conductor is a virtuoso, a top class performer. That’s one way of looking at it and an interesting thing to have in your back pocket, but maybe not as crucial as he might think. Charisma, though, is hugely important. It comes in very different guises, but there has to be a very clear and passionate musical desire, a real personality, a real wish to make music in a certain way.” 

The days of great dictators are gone, he reiterates. “There has to be a willingness to collaborate. I’ve just been rehearsing the strings here in Cardiff, and you’re to-ing and fro-ing all the time.” That from someone who knows his stuff, gets the results he wants, and always gets asked back. 

BBC SSO / Brabbins

City Halls, Glasgow 

As Martyn Brabbins rightly observed during his interval thoughts on Benjamin Britten’s last opera Death in Venice, there is a disturbing undercurrent that haunts its pungent score. We weren’t about to hear the whole opera, but rather a masterfully crafted concert suite, prepared eight years after Britten’s death by the conductor and Britten collaborator Steuart Bedford.

It was the final piece in a brooding all-Britten programme broadcast live on Radio 3 by the BBC SSO, the common factor throughout being that anxious underswell described by Brabbins, whether in the sombre strains of Russian Funeral, the searing mystical delights of the song cycle Nocturne, the ghostly references of John Dowland cutting through the ruminative Lachrymae for viola and string orchestra, or the constant reminders within the Death in Venice score of the opera’s hovering fear – rumours of a cholera pandemic. How topical!

Russian Funeral, scored for brass only, is understandably powerful and morose, written in the run up to the Second World War when Britten’s anti-war sensibilities were fully wakening. But it’s not just about his pacifist ideals. Structured around a Russian proletarian song, it’s a paean to the victims of the 1905 Winter Palace insurrection, its lugubrious but hot-blooded sentiment roundly embraced by the SSO brass, underpinned by the menace of militaristic drums.

Britten’s final song cycle, Nocturne, took us to a dreamier world. These settings of Shelley, Tennyson, Owen, Keats and Shakespeare, among others, explore rich and varied images of sleep and darkness, from the hypnotic density of Shelley’s On a Poet’s Lips I Slept, the catchy “ting, ting, ting” of Middleton’s Midnight Bell, to the powerful contradictions in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 43.

Tenor Mark Padmore’s performance hit the magic button, in one sense capturing that piercing objectivity we so associate with the work’s original exponent Peter Pears, but in another sense finding a range of expression fluid enough to amplify the music’s shifting moods and dramatic surprises. 

He owed much, of course, to the supporting piquant flavourings of the SSO ensemble, notably the thrill of the duetting flute and clarinet in Keats’ Sleep and Poetry, the entrancing harp in Coleridge’s Encintured with a Twine of Leaves, and that gorgeous blanket of strings throughout – a defining, unifying presence.

Where Nocturne looks to English poetry, Lachrymae for solo viola and strings (Britten’s 1976 orchestration) turns to old English song for its inspiration. Almost like a reverse set of variations, John Dowland’s theme, on which it is based, emerges in full at the end rather than the beginning. It’s a transformative moment, and one that seemed especially profound as the inevitable resolution to a captivating solo performance by SSO principal viola Scott Dickinson. The subtle references to Dowland previously were like phantom apparitions, the full string complement equal in capturing such magical moments.

All of which found the perfect destination in the Death in Venice Suite. Bedford’s slick continuous distillation maintains the opera’s narrative flow, but equally it allows us to appreciate the score on its own merit. Yes, the gnawing nuances that reflect the ageing writer Aschenbach’s obsession with the boy Tadzio are intrinsic to Britten’s expressive language, and are hard to discard if you know the opera. Yet this steely, sinewy, often sublime performance illustrated, too, the composer’s own emotional struggles. Disturbing yes, but wonderfully enriching.
Ken Walton

Image: Martyn Brabbins ©Ben Ealovega