Monday 19 August 2019

Prom 35: ‘Pictured within’ – Birthday variations for M.C.B. (Martyn Brabbins' 60th birthday)

Martyn Brabbins with nine of the composers contributing to his Proms’ birthday celebration piece (photo: Chris Christodoulou)
Martyn Brabbins with nine of the 14 composers who contributed to his BBC Proms’ 60th birthday celebration piece
(photo: Chris Christodoulou)
Pictured within – Birthday variations for M.C.B.; BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Guest Review by Jill Barlow on 13 August 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
John Pickard, composer of new finale: 'This is a new beginning'

The world premiere of Pictured within – Birthday variations for M.C.B., a new Enigma Variations commissioned by the BBC took place at Prom 35 at the Royal Albert Hall on 13 August 2019, when Martyn Brabbins conducted the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in a concert which also included RVW's Serenade to Music and Brahms' Song of Destiny. The new piece, celebrating Brabbins' 60th birthday, reflects the overall shape of Elgar's ever-popular Enigma Variations, using a new theme by an anonymous composer followed by a new set of 14 variations by chosen living composers - Dai Fujikura, David Sawer, Sally Beamish, Colin Matthews, Iris ter Schiphorst, Brett Dean, Wim Henderickx, Richard Blackford, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Dame Judith Weir, Gavin Bryars, Kalevi Aho, Sir Anthony Payne, John Pickard.

Martyn Brabbins decided to celebrate his current 60th Birthday with the world premiere of a new set of Enigma Variations written especially for him by 14 varied composers who were associated with his career. He chose an anonymous composer to write a new theme tune to guide the work along and as reviewer Barry Creasy wrote this week for Music OMH, words to the effect that despite disparate styles:- ‘the new variations hung together extremely well’.

This is what we look for of course in a premiere especially at the ever popular BBC Proms, something that meaningfully engages the mind, imagination and above all the ear. I was particularly drawn to try to get to review this ambitious new work, since by coincidence in August 2017 when having just attended to review, the premiere of to my mind a less successful work, and just about to depart from the Albert Hall Foyer – I reported :- ‘I was about to venture forth into the (blustery) night but was caught in my tracks by the enigmatic sounds of Elgar’s Nimrod issuing forth from the concert hall, played as I’ve never heard it played before, slow and with a hushed opening, absolutely beautiful. Now I don’t usually go much for Elgar, often a touch too pompous by half, but what a composer and what definition of movements – that’s a refreshing thought-----’.

Well, due to circumstances beyond my control, I was unable to actually attend in person Martyn Brabbins’60th Birthday World Premiere at the Albert Hall Prom, on the day, so the BBC allowed me to review this landmark work by catching it live on BBC Radio 3 via BBC Sounds and what a magnificent link this is too with its’ superb clarity of sound & apt lively commentary-introduction, bringing one by virtual reality right into the Albert Hall itself sharing all the atmosphere and timbre.

So what of the new work itself? Martyn Brabbins’ world premiere new set of Enigma Variations opens aptly with an ominous statement of the new theme (by anonymous composer). This is distinctly angular in character with great leaps in register accompanied by intermittent hints of melancholy – all quite memorable so easily recognised when it recurs later in the variations which adds meaning for the listener when used for instance in the first variation by Dai Fujikura among other energetic material, followed by a quirky opening for Variation 2 (David Sawer),

I particularly enjoyed variation 3, by Sally Beamish, who managed to construct a’ Blues scale’ from the notes of the new theme ‘I had fun creating a Jazz- infused quirky variation featuring Martyn’s instrument – the trombone - later partnered by the trumpet (Elgar does find his way in a certain points)' as she writes enthusiastically in her programme notes.

Space does not allow to detail all 14 variations, but they all engaged the ear and held it – meaningfully. I was specially attracted by Variation 5 (Iris ter Schiphorst) who uses 2 themes contrapuntally. Brett Dean’s Variation 6 proved interesting centred on the viola. We had percussion thrills from Wim Henderickx in Variation 7, and Richard Blackford’s Variation 8 featured the clarinet.

Special attention was drawn to Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s Variation 9, for as he writes in his programme notes :-‘I drew the short straw with the task of responding to the famous Nimrod Variation. ’What do you do ?’ I will not try to interpret his plan of action involving manoeuvres with minor 3rds etc. but he went on to describe the process :-‘it’s as you might use a spice in cooking. I realised my new variation had to have a slow meditative quality, beyond that I indulged my own invention. ’Well it all sounded impressively like Birtwistle as we’ve grown to know and love him, as one of our foremost British composers – difficult to comprehend but pure Birtwistle at his best!

To carry on down the variations - Judith Weir’s Sixty Salutations ‘was most impressive and to cap it all John Pickard’s Finale (Variation 14) swept through like a whirlwind with organ to crown it. As it says in his programme notes on being asked to write the ending :-‘This is a New Beginning!’

Elsewhere on this blog
  • A rare appearance in London: Rameau's first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, at the Grimeborn Festival (★★★½) - opera review
  • Central to Yuval Sharon’s production of Lohengrin is its dramaturgical concept based on Wagner’s critiques on science and technology (★★★) - opera review
  • Carry On meets Dads' Army in this ebullient lark: Rossini's Le Comte Ory at the Grimeborn Festival (★★★) - opera review
  • A bel canto career: whilst in London for the London Bel Canto Festival, tenor Bruce Ford talks about the bel canto style and his remarkable career - interview 
  • Large scale, striking & engaging: Mozart's Die Zauberflöte in an historic quarry in Austria (★★★) - opera review
  • Surprisingly, Tannhäuser has received only a handful of productions at the Bayreuth Festival and this new production by Tobias Kratzer chalks up its ninth outing  -
    (★★★) Opera review
  • Prom 34: Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Lutoslawski from Daniel Barenboim, Martha Argerich and West-Eastern Divan Orchestra  (★★★) - concert review
  • A strong message on anti-semitism: Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Bayreuth Festival (★★★) - opera review
  • Helen Habershon: Found in Winter (★★★) - CD review
  • Prom 26: Mozart's Requiem, Brahms and Wagner from BBC National Orchestra of Wales  (★★★) - concert review
  • A stupendous achievement for a small opera company: Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg from Fulham Opera (★★★) - opera review
  • Exciting, colourful & a challenge: Clarinettist Mark van de Wiel talks about Joseph Phibbs' new concerto which he premiered & has just recorded  - interview
  • Strip Jack Naked: Stephen McNeff's music theatre piece for Lore Lixenberg (★★★) - CD review
  • Home

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts this month