The news filtered through on Thursday that Anthony Marwood had had to withdraw from giving the London première of Sally Beamish’s Violin Concerto, and that James Crabb had stepped in at short notice to provide another Beamish London première, of accordion concerto The Singing. This meant a shift away from a First World War theme, as Beamish’s inspiration was the Highland Clearances, a forced displacement of farming tenants across Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries.

James Crabb © James Crabb
James Crabb
© James Crabb

The performance would have been considered excellent under normal circumstances; here, it was nothing short of exceptional. While it undoubtedly helped that Crabb was intimately involved with the piece (he is its dedicatee, and gave its première in 2006 at Cheltenham Festival), Brabbin’s deft handling of Beamish’s hugely accomplished score was a delight.

Beamish clearly took a lot of time exploring the technical capabilities of the accordion while writing this piece, and then made full use of them to create a work full of expression, and, appropriately, song. From the opening pitchless, percussive sounds, it was clear that we were going to hear the accordion in a very untraditional way, even with the use of Gaelic and Celtic melodies in later movements.

After an industrial-themed first movement, the second opened with stunning interplay between accordion, solo viola and solo cello before moving into darker territory, alternating between mournfulness and anger. Crabb was hugely expressive here, particularly in his cadenza passages. The opening of the third movement hearkened back to the first, this time with the accordion sighing over percussion. But this time the frantic energy was positive, optimistic, bursting into life. Brabbins, Crabb and the orchestra worked themselves into a frenzy, before bells rang out like a call to church, introducing a hymn-like finale that swelled to a rousing close – a marvellous piece, and a marvellous performance.

It was preceded by Ivor Gurney’s War Elegy, one of his few surviving orchestra pieces. Finished in November 1920, two years before Gurney was committed to the asylum in which he would live out his days, it owes much to Elgar in its sorrowful, impassioned expression of the horrors of war. The BBC Symphony Orchestra fully embraced this, and also drew out the elements inspired by its original title, Funeral March. This was delicate handling from Brabbins, and the orchestra responded in kind.

Some of that war-torn feeling was carried into the second half in a performance of Walton’s Symphony No 1 in B flat minor that felt more political than personal. The general consensus is that the collapse of Walton’s relationship with Baroness Imma Doernberg inspired the composition, rather than the situation across Europe at the time. Here, however, it felt as if Brabbins had opted for the latter as his interpretive lens, and to great effect. After a slightly tentative start, an angry, dark energy emerged, until the sound virtually exploded from the stage, before diminishing to a plaintive, slow section which had shades of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Then Brabbins had the orchestra seething, before building up to a first, frustrated climax, followed by a boiling over into the unexpected major key. As with the first movement, the “Presto con malizia” took a while to grow into its malice, but when it did it was the most personal of the performance. Like lovers arguing while dancing in public, the music hissed with fantastic energy. The third movement, “con malincola”, was more subdued from the very beginning, as if the sadness felt was too powerful to be allowed full expression. This was fantastically controlled by Brabbins, growing from grief-stricken to anger-laced foreboding and fading away into nothing.

The fourth movement, one that particularly troubled Walton, was immediately more positive, declaiming its optimism from the start. There was a determined energy from the orchestra, even when it was referencing melancholy, malicious or raging moments from previous movements. Brabbins drove the orchestra, leaping and dancing on the podium, bringing the fabulous brass writing towards the end of the symphony out perfectly, before leading the orchestra to a roaring climax.