BBCSO/Brabbins review – last-minute change adds drama to Beowulf premiere

Martyn Brabbins’s latest BBC Symphony Orchestra concert opened with the world premiere of Iain Bell’s Beowulf, a 50-minute cantata for tenor, female narrator, chorus and orchestra, It was intended, in part, for the Australian heldentenor Stuart Skelton, though his withdrawal due to laryngitis resulted in the first performance being given at short notice by Charles Styles, a 26-year-old British tenor at the start of his career.

Skelton’s influence inevitably hangs heavily over the work, which is self-consciously post-Wagnerian and post-Romantic in scale and scope, with echoes of Mahler’s Das Klagende Lied in places. The forces required are colossal: a huge orchestra with quadruple woodwind and multiple percussionists, and an equally large choir (the BBC Symphony Chorus), often sectionally divided, the choral writing oscillating between unearthly tone clusters, chromatic ululations and diatonic lyricism. Vestiges of symphonic structure, meanwhile, lurk behind its four sections, depicting Beowulf’s encounters with his antagonists – the monster Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a dragon – then his death and cremation.

Some of it impresses. An insidiously attractive barcarolle ushers us into Grendel’s mother’s aquatic lair. The dragon gets a baleful, Lisztian scherzo, and Beowulf’s farewell to life, the last of several contrasting tenor solos, is particularly moving in its sombre, dignified beauty.

Yet elsewhere Bell’s scoring can be dense, at times unvaryingly so. Balance on occasion becomes precarious, and the premiere’s impact was seriously weakened by the fact that chorus and orchestra repeatedly rendered the narrator (Ruth Wilson, no less) inaudible, despite her being amplified. Brabbins conducted with energetic commitment, though. Playing and choral singing were detailed and focused. And Styles, looking undaunted by the challenge facing him, sang with gleaming top notes, a warm middle register and considerable dramatic insight, his voice cutting comfortably through Bell’s Wagnerian textures throughout.

Its companion piece was Vaughan Williams’s Job, where Brabbins was very much in his element, propelling the score forwards with measured intensity. He was immaculate in his judgment of the conflict between spirituality and violence, and of the sense of sadness that hovers just below the music’s surface: a beautiful performance, played with richness, clarity and nobility, that proved touching in the extreme.