Few living conductors have done more for British music than Martyn Brabbins, and Thursday’s BBC SSO programme was right up his street, from obscure 20th-century rediscoveries of recent years to the heaving power of Elgar’s Enigma Variations.
Let’s get the rarities out of the way first, works by composers whose creative potential was tragically cut short by their deaths in the First World War: George Butterworth and Edinburgh-born Cecil Coles, who was hardly known at all until Brabbins and the SSO breathed life into his forgotten music a decade ago. Butterworth was never so obscure, thanks – among other endearing music – to his AE Housman song settings from A Shropshire Lad. But the Orchestral Fantasia has only ever existed in part, and this was our first opportunity to hear it expanded and sensitively realised by composer Kriss Russman. There’s a dark nostalgia in its opening bars, and an ensuing volatility that the SSO captured exquisitely under Brabbins’ finely shaped direction.
Coles’ music is not quite so polished or stylistically consistent, but Brabbins’ orchestrations of extracts from his suite Behind the Lines and the simply-crafted Sorrowful Dance were a sweet aperitif to a closing performance of Elgar’s Enigma Variations that produced the most sweeping, surging and majestic moments of the entire programme.
The other major highpoint was cellist Nicolas Altstaedt’s beguiling performance of Walton’s Cello Concerto, a work that possesses its own enigma through quizzical mood swings and muted ecstasy. This moving interpretation, though, had all the answers.