Brabbins’ Mellow RVW 3rd and 4th Symphonies

Review by: David Hurwitz


Artistic Quality: 7

Sound Quality: 8

A bit more than half of this recording is excellent. The rest, not so much. We’ll start there. Martyn Brabbins simply lacks the fire that the Fourth Symphony requires. The outer movements, especially, need more ferocity, sharper attacks, and more urgently sustained tempos. Just listen to how the brass proclamations that launch the finale lose volume and energy as the line descends; or notice the labored and not terribly vicious scherzo; or the ineffective closing fugato. It’s just lame.

The performance of A Pastoral Symphony, on the other hand, is beautiful. The opening movement flows effortlessly, its difficult-to-balance chamber music textures colorful and clear. Brabbins captures the uneasy mystery behind the slow movement equally well, and keeps the scherzo’s rollicking rhythms from turning too heavy. The finale brings fulfillment without straining–here is a case where Brabbins’ tendency toward moderation in all things delivers the results he evidently was seeking.

The conclusion is a premiere of sorts–yet another incomplete work arranged for performance (by Brabbins himself, as it turns out). Saraband ‘Helen’ is a cantata for tenor, chorus, and orchestra on a text from Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus about, you guessed it, Helen of Troy. It sounds a bit like the Serenade to Music, and Brabbins’ realization of the composer’s incomplete sketch is wholly idiomatic, as well as (let’s face it) wholly unnecessary. Tenor David Butt Philip sounds strained, but everyone else does a fine job with its brief nine minutes.

The sonics are warm and full, with backwardly balanced percussion not helping the Fourth Symphony achieve the necessary impact. In sum, this release is either partial success or a partial failure, depending on your perspective. I tend to the former view if only because A Pastoral Symphony’s subtlety strikes me as the greater challenge; but I have to wonder that if Brabbins can succeed here, why can’t he do equally well by RVW’s more robust inspirations?

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Symphony No. 4: Slatkin (RCA); A Pastoral Symphony: Boult (EMI)

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