If you’re going to celebrate your 60th birthday at the BBC Proms, what better way to do it than commission a new work dedicated to yourself? But Martyn Brabbins, conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, went further and asked no fewer than fourteen composers to produce Pictured Within: Birthday Variations for M.C.B., modelled on Elgar’s Enigma Variations. A set of variations, composed by fourteen different composers, with hugely varying styles of composition – surely a recipe for a disaster?

Martyn Brabbins © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Martyn Brabbins
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Well, Brabbins’ tight parameters – that each variation should reflect the tempo, character and duration of a corresponding Elgar variation (allocated by Brabbins himself), combined with a distinctive, angular theme (written by an anonymous composer), with a marked rising leap (in contrast to the falling 7th of Elgar’s theme) – seemed to constrain the composers enough to make this a surprisingly coherent set. Contrasts mostly mirrored those in the ‘parent’ set, yet with occasional splashes of individuality from the composers. So Dai Fujikura’s ‘C.A.E.’ equivalent had a similarly lilting rhythm, but with added strangeness from muted tremolo trombones. Sally Beamish took Elgar’s ‘R.B.T.’s sliding chromatic figures, and came up with something altogether more bluesy, almost drunken, with sliding trombones (trombones featured highly for several of the composers). Space here doesn’t allow for mention of all fourteen composers’ contributions, but others worthy of mention are the sumptuous violas and viola solo in Brett Dean’s Variation 6, the driving trombones (again) in Wim Henderickx’s no. 7, and the solo clarinet rising out of sparse string textures in Harrison Birtwistle’s no. 9. This variation perhaps bears the least obvious connection to its partner – there is no great “Nimrod” climax here, and glassy string harmonics, a plaintive trumpet and spiky percussion and brass interjections create an altogether edgier atmosphere. In Judith Weir’s “Sixty Salutations”, she takes no. 10’s woodwind flutters, presenting sixty of them in a playfully energetic variation, with brass harmonies reminiscent of a Malcolm Arnold dance. Gavin Bryars gave us a romping, swirling waltz, and John Pickard’s “The Art of Beginning” finale has great surges of brass, and the first truly sustained loud music of the set, also heralding the first entry of the organ, as in Elgar’s own finale. A fun celebration, then, and one in which Brabbins and the BBC SSO players clearly took great delight, with nine of the fourteen composers joining Brabbins on stage for a bow. A fascinating endeavour, and the set could well stand as a concert companion for the Elgar in the future.

Composers of <i>Birthday Variations</i> with Martyn Brabbins © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Composers of Birthday Variations with Martyn Brabbins
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Vaughan Williams composed his sublime Serenade to Music for 16 solo singers for another birthday celebration, Henry Wood’s RAH jubilee concert. However, he made different arrangements to allow for more frequent performance, and tonight we heard the version for four soloists and chorus. The soloists were all ENO Harewood Young Artists (where Brabbins is Music Director), and they were joined by the ENO Chorus, and the BBC Singers. A relatively short piece anyway, this version actually presents very little for the soloists to do, with only the soprano and tenor having much more than the odd line. However, all four here delivered their brief parts with character. The choral forces produced a beautifully warm blend, and their pianissimo first entry was highly effective, if a little overpowered by the orchestra, whilst their outburst of emotion at “draw her home with music” was powerful. Other than the opening choral entry, Brabbins judged the dynamics effectively, and apart from a slightly sluggish trumpet fanfare at “Music! Hark!”, the players responded well. After the interval, they contrasted the warm positivity of the Vaughan Williams with a weightier affair, Brahms’ Song of Destiny. Once again, the choral blend was warm, and at its climax points, the combined choral forces produced a powerfully operatic sound, perhaps not a sound often heard in this repertoire, more often the province of amateur choruses, but not an unwelcome one.

Martyn Brabbins © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Martyn Brabbins
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

To conclude, Brabbins and the BBC SSO responded to the evening’s opening with a taut performance of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Clearly in a birthday mood by now, still, Brabbins was also not afraid to take risks, with some brave pianissimos, such as the drop before the final build at the end of the first variation, and a phenomenally quiet clarinet solo, even quieter on its return, in Variation 13. Brabbins also enjoyed Elgar’s frequent use of violas, often conducting directly to that section, placed at the front with the cellos inside them. Tempi were steady, still with energy, but without extremes. “Nimrod” again started incredibly quietly, and Brabbins allowed the shifting inner harmonies to lead the build up. An Enigma Variations with no great surprises, then, just warmly and affectionately presented as they should be.

****1