Recorded November 19, 2020, at Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff

Broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday December 8, 2020, at 7.30 p.m.

Neither Zemlinsky’s Six Maeterlinck Songs (completed in 1913) nor Mahler’s Fourth Symphony were designed for our unprecedented Covid times in terms of personnel required, although the latter is one of the composer’s less-extravagant orchestrations; no trombones or tuba, for example.

John Pickard has made a new, very skilful, ensemble version of the Zemlinsky, wonderful Expressionist settings (his brother-in-law Schoenberg, in Gurrelieder mode, would have approved, so too the Strauss of Elektra and Salome) that found mezzo-soprano Dame Sarah Connolly addressing the words (Death predominant) and music with eloquence and intensity. Martyn Brabbins secured sensitive, poetic and collaborative playing from the BBCNOW members.

And he went on (following the delaying, if complementary, interval music – after all, this BBCNOW concert was a recording not needing a break and the Zemlinsky barely reaches twenty minutes) to deliver a revealing Mahler 4, performed by BBCNOW musicians in Schoenberg-pupil Erwin Stein’s sympathetic fourteen-player 1921 re-scoring, including piano and harmonium, originally made to bring the work wider currency.

Brabbins’s pacing was persuasive, initially lightly skipping and impish, to avoid any holes given the smaller forces, and then plenty of rounded lyricism. Even though the first-movement’s darker elements are played-down as arranged, there is an attractive snowdrop delicacy in its place as compensation. The performers found the edgy sprite within the second movement – leader Lesley Hatfield offering the up-tuned violin solos – whereas the slow movement was spaciously blissful, a wooded wonderland suggested, divergences (such as a country-dance and the climactic opening of Heaven’s Gates, if such it be) made organic and with surprising tonal substance in the latter episode, although Brabbins did say he’d augmented the strings by a few desks. For the Finale, soprano Rowan Pierce brought a light touch to illuminate the child’s tour of Heaven, innocent yet aware.