Sixty is no great age for a conductor – most simply get better with age – and Martyn Brabbins celebrated reaching that landmark at the Proms doing what he does so well: conducting brand new music. And not just any run-of-the-mill premiere either, but a work commissioned for the occasion from no less than 14 composers. Brabbins himself apparently came up with the idea to ask some of those with whom he has worked regularly to contribute to a birthday work mirroring the shape of Elgar’s Enigma Variations, giving one variation to each of them for Pictured Within: Birthday Variations for MCB, which began his programme with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.
Such collaborative ideas sometimes fall flat, but this one didn’t. The theme – restrained, even enigmatic – had been written anonymously (perhaps by the birthday boy himself?) and Brabbins had allotted the variations very cannily so that the sequence was full of contrasts and sometimes surprises. Brett Dean, who is an outstanding viola player as well as a composer, was given variation six, which prominently features violas in Elgar’s original; Judith Weir, a former oboist, got the 10th, Dorabella, remembering Elgar’s chattering woodwind in the equivalent number. David Sawer contributed a neat and characterful equivalent to variation two; Harrison Birtwistle a typically dark, growling interlude in the Nimrod slot; and Kalevi Aho responded to the cello solos of variation 12 with a fiercely concentrated miniature. Two composers known for their work on Elgar rounded off the sequence: Anthony Payne provided variation 13, studding it with quotations, and John Pickard a finale, which he turned into a curtain raiser as much as a musical full stop.
The Elgar original ended the concert with a typically muscular Brabbins performance with the orchestra with which he was closely associated for more than a decade carefully avoiding sentimentality, while between the two sets of variations his current role as music director of ENO was in the spotlight. Four singers from the company’s Harewood Young Artists scheme – Nadine Benjamin, Idunnu Munch, William Morgan and David Ireland – were the soloists with the ENO Chorus in Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music, and the chorus featured in Brahms’s Song of Destiny too.
As a birthday celebration it covered most of the bases.
Available on BBC Sounds and broadcast on BBC4 on 8 September. The Proms continue until 14 September.