Hubert Parry is one of those composers who is good but not quite good enough. The Symphony No. 5 in B minor known as the Symphonic Fantasia '1912’ that opened this first class concert is an excellent example of this. Written at the end of his career when younger composers, many of them his pupils, had overshadowed him, it’s possible to hear him straining to find a more contemporary idiom, with flashes of Elgar and even the more luxurious world of Richard Strauss or Arnold Bax. However something foursquare, Victorian and German still overwhelms the finished product.

Martyn Brabbins, Tai Murray and the BBC NOW
© BBC | Mark Allan

Four compact movements run into each other and are closely related thematically. Highlights of the score are the troubled development section in the first movement, the sweet principal theme of the Lento and the agile, nicely scored Scherzo. The finale cleverly knits together several of the themes and ends with a splendid statement of the heroic opening theme.

It was cruel, in some ways, to follow this worthy work with one of the supreme masterpieces of the English repertoire written around the same time, The Lark Ascending. Here you can see how far the pupil had outstretched the teacher, a work of direct simplicity which oozes confidence and expressive freedom. Gone are the shackles of German cultural dominance and notions of respectability and instead we are left with room to express feelings and atmosphere.

And it would be hard to imagine a more potent performance of this overly familiar work. American soloist Tai Murray found the ideal balance of purity and passion, never pushing the music beyond it's technical or emotional boundaries and hypnotising a packed Royal Albert Hall. Martyn Brabbins and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales were the most sensitive of accompanists. This Lark certainly ascended to the heights, demonstrating that this is not just a popular bonbon, but a seriously developed entity and a summation of rural simplicity, that was soon to be blown away by the First World War.

Martyn Brabbins
© BBC | Mark Allan

Parry’s extended anthem Hear my words, ye people from 1895 sees the composer at his most Victorian. Written for chorus, soloists and brass it is a very straightforward setting of some beautiful words from the book of Job. The soloists have their moments in the sun, well projected here by Ashley Riches and Francesca Chiejina. The final section using the familiar hymn O Praise Ye the Lord was relished by the BBC National Chorus of Wales. The chorus faced more of a challenge in the Ode to Death from 1919 by Gustav Holst that followed. Again this was unfortunate for Parry as this work is one of the composer's finest achievements and was Vaughan Williams' favourite work by his friend. Setting Walt Whitman, it is original in every bar and pungently concise and unsentimental. It came across very well here, with Brabbins never over dramatising its more powerful moments.

Vaughan Williams' Pastoral Symphony is in many ways the most original and moving of the composer's cycle. Started during his time serving in France during WW1, it moves from a numb greyness to more open-hearted optimism in the finale. The first two movements are harmonically advanced, using discords in a muted way, in complete contrast to the violent they were to be used in the composer's Fourth. Bitonality is the order of the day, creating an effect of floating ghostly chords colliding in the twilight. The use of the natural trumpet and horn in the slow movement to depict The Last Post punctuates music of brooding deadness. Only after the funereal dance of the Scherzo ends with a Presto scurry, is there any sense of hope. The Lento finale starts and ends with an off-stage wordless soloist, here the soprano Francesca Chiejina, moving in between, through a moment of anxiety leading to a climax of hope.

Brabbins' approach was to emphasise the subtle muted qualities of the score, not grabbing at the flashes of light as others do, but presenting the work in all its grief-strewn glory. The BBC NOW responded with flexibility and warmth throughout, particularly telling woodwind playing was woven into the cushion of delicate string orchestration. The suppressed emotions of the first two movements, wonderfully balanced here, were swept aside by the heavy gait of the third movement, excellently achieved, not folksy but tragic. In the finale the strings were given free rein to produce an extra depth of tone, giving the drama that unfolds still in the half-light a reassuringly human face.

This extraordinary symphonic statement came across here as uncompromising and as radical as any symphony from the 20th century – a fitting, beautiful and dignified Requiem for a lost generation of young men.