In this concert, promoted as having a World War 1 theme, it was only the new commission from Cheryl Frances-Hoad that explicitly found that link. Last Man Standing is a hybrid of song cycle and dramatic work, here semi-staged with the sensitive presence of Marcus Farnsworth adding a touching note of honesty to the proceedings. Setting words by Tamsin Collison, it tells the story of a young man’s journey from recruitment, through the horrors of battle, to visiting the graves of the fallen. It does so with a directness which can be touching, dramatic and even humorous, but also teeters on the brink of being hackneyed and sentimental.

Martyn Brabbins © Benjamin Ealovega
Martyn Brabbins
© Benjamin Ealovega

The colourful orchestral score by Frances-Hoad was very confidently presented by Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with moments of real power, particularly in the Auld Lang Syne variation section. The colourful moment depicting early optimism had a riotous bittersweetness reminiscent of Malcolm Arnold. The vocal writing was grateful, but occasionally one wished for a bit more poetry in its word setting. An effective work in terms of its storytelling, but where it didn’t quite succeed was in putting across the universal message of protest and sorrow it seemed to be aiming for.

The concert opened with one of the most important works by the still massively underperformed Arnold Bax. Written as the centrepiece of a triptych of tone poems depicting nature and love, November Woods was written during World War 1 but owes nothing to it. It is a very personal work, full of fantasy and lushness, as all this composer’s best pieces are.

No British composer writes better for the orchestra than Bax. The flavour of his orchestration, though sometimes reminiscent of others – including Debussy, Richard Strauss and Scriabin –  is very much his personal stamp. Low woodwind and flecks of percussion, celesta and harps, counterbalance the rich string writing and the powerful integration of the brass – all held together with admirable purpose and precision by the BBCSO. November Woods is a work that is at least equal to the composer's more popular Tintagel, as well as the seven variable symphonies that followed: it represents a high point in British orchestral writing.

The same could be said of Vaughan WilliamsSymphony no. 4 in F minor, written in the mid-1930s. Its unique fury was very much related to personal events in the composer's life, namely the deteriorating health and then death of his great musical companion, Gustav Holst, and the increasing claustrophobia of his married life. However, unlike Bax, Vaughan Williams' music naturally carries with it a gravitas which speaks of universalities: the Fourth Symphony has increasingly been seen as a reaction to the rise of fascism and a premonition of the troubled times to come.

The principal musical impetus behind the work was to recreate a work as single-minded as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The result is the composer's most tightly constructed symphony. The chromatic four-note theme that dominates throughout is as obsessive as Beethoven’s, but the energetic impulse here is more about the negative, and if there is a victory at the end, it is evil that wins the day.

Vaughan Williams' own recording of the work goes hell for leather and it is completely uncompromising. Very few conductors have achieved a fraction of that dynamism. Brabbins' account was one of the most impressive I have heard in recent years. In the First movement the tempo was fast enough to create that sense of danger, and the spooky coda was tellingly presented. The colliding polyphony of the slow movement had the right balance of clarity and noble power in the climaxes. The Scherzo, with its counterintuitive rhythms, stuttered along trying to find solid ground as it should, incisively held together by the BBCSO.

Most performances stand or fall in their projection of the excesses in the Finale. This is the movement that most challenged the composer: Brabbins was just about on the right side of the unhinged. I find a devil-may-care approach more effective, but Brabbins still impressed in his energy levels. Particularly effective was the slow interlude, which added a note of real pain and pathos before the final onslaught. This fugal epilogue was truly grim, with the balance of the heavy snarling brass just right and the final dismissive chord slamming the door in our face with defiant aplomb.

****1