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Havergal Brian (1876-1972)
Comedy Overture – The Jolly Miller (1962) [4:42]
Violin Concerto in C major (1934-35) [35:37]
Symphony No. 18 (1961) [14:26]
Marat Bisengaliev, violin
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Lionel Friend
Recorded in Studio 1, BBC Broadcasting House, Glasgow, 12-15 January 1993
NAXOS 8.557775 [54:45]

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I wish to concentrate in this review on the Violin Concerto but a few words on the Overture and the Symphony are necessary.

Brian wrote three overtures which can be described as ‘comedy’. The first was Doctor Merryheart in 1912 and this was followed by The Tinker’s Wedding in 1948. It was fourteen years later that he conceived The Jolly Miller. It is really in two contrasting sections – an introduction and then a little set of variations, based on a folk tune called The Miller of Dee. It is in an approachable style and makes fine use of brass and percussion. The present recording is its first professional reading. Unfortunately, Brian never heard the work performed.

The Eighteenth Symphony was written quite quickly between February and May in 1961. It resulted from a request by Bryan Fayrfax for a work scored for smaller forces than the mammoth Gothic Symphony; at that time being prepared for its first performance. In fact Brian decided to write a brand new work and dedicated it to Fayrfax and his Polyphonia Orchestra.

This work was much more in the ‘classical’ manner than the previous few symphonies. For one thing the single movement form was abandoned in favour of a more traditional three. Although this work was written for reduced forces it does not imply limited technical ability. In spite of the fact that this is approachable music it never becomes light. It can best be described as optimistic with a few hesitations on the way. I must confess that this did not grab me on first hearing, although I can see that there is much here to satisfy the listener. If any referential work or composer is required to help decide if this work is for you I felt that Malcolm Arnold would not be too far from the mark. But I await readers’ comments on that comparison!

But now on to weightier matters.

The key question about the Violin Concerto in C major by Havergal Brian is whether it ought to be regarded as one of the greatest British concertos or whether it deserves its obscurity.

Obviously the Brian aficionado will insist that this work is a masterpiece and deserves to be taken up by any number of leading soloists and orchestras.

But what is the competition? I am sure that the readers do not need to be read a lecture on the repertoire, however it is worth a few moments just listing the key works in this genre.

Few would argue that the leading contenders are Edward Elgar and William Walton. However it would be unfair to disregard Jack Moeran and Benjamin Britten in any review of the topic. Another name to be reckoned with is Alan Rawsthorne who composed two excellent examples of the genre which have been recorded by Naxos. The little appreciated work by Fred Delius is actually rather good. And of course the offerings by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Arthur Somervell should not be ignored. Yet, to use that dreadful idiom, in the final analysis, it is the Elgar and the Walton concerti that really count. I have loved and even adored these two works since I was quite young. Both of them reach for the stars and touch the moon. And they have one distinct advantage. They are exposed to the public; they are heard at concerts and on the radio. Scores are available for perusal by the musically literate. There are essays available to help with analysis. Biographies and letters of the composers all help us find our way through these pages.

Then up comes a record company with a work that 99% of the musical constituency in this country and elsewhere have unlikely heard of, never mind heard.

What are we to make of it?

In typical clerical fashion I will make three points.

1. This is not a new work – it has been around for 70 years. However it had to wait until 1969 before receiving its first performance by Ralph Holmes and the New Philharmonia Orchestra. Even the present disc is a re-release. It was originally issued on Marco Polo over 10 years ago. However the re-issue on Naxos almost guarantees that it will receive a wider audience. In fact it is highly likely that many people will listen to this work that have never otherwise not heard of Havergal Brian.

2. The first performance of this piece was at a time when tonal music was probably at an all time low. In fact, it was likely regarded as being totally passé by most learned music critics at that time. A composer like Havergal Brian was probably not appreciated. The concerto, although perhaps receiving fine reviews, would not catch the eye of the cognoscenti. It would be left to the enthusiasts of Brian’s music to carry the torch. In the first decade of the new century we are less inclined to write-off a work because it does not conform to the latest ideas on musical composition. So the work has a fair chance of being heard, enjoyed and appreciated without being condemned.

3. In spite of the efforts of the Havergal Brian Society, I doubt that his name will ever rank with Walton and Elgar. However, after two hearings of this work I am almost convinced that this work will complete the triangle of key violin concertos produced in the 20th century in the United Kingdom. In the rest of this review will try to give just a few pointers as to why.

But first of all it is helpful to give a brief résumé of the genesis of this great concerto. I rely heavily on the excellent programme notes written by Malcolm MacDonald.

Brian had composed his Fourth Symphony in 1933 and decided to embark on the composition of a large-scale work -the Violin Concerto. As a child Brian had learnt to play the violin so perhaps it was natural that he should turn to this particular form.

The draft score was completed by June 1934 but unfortunately it was lost on a train trip from Brighton to Victoria – his brief case was stolen or mislaid. Typically, he set to work straightaway to recover lost ground. He did not try to reconstruct the work from memory but effectively created a new work using what themes and progressions he could recall from the original. The ‘new’ work was finished in the summer of 1935 and was initially called Violin Concerto No.2. It was subtitled ‘The Heroic’ which aptly summed up the effort Brian put into creating this masterpiece. Eventually the composer dropped the No.2 and the name and it became known as Violin Concerto in C major.

It is superfluous to try to describe the progress of this work. The programme notes give a very detailed analysis of each movement and the listener can peruse this at leisure. Furthermore it is extremely difficult to try to say what the work sounds like. All sorts of allusions spring to mind. And one of my criticisms of the Brian’s music is that it can sometimes be a little too eclectic. One minute we are reminded of Elgar, then the next Schoenberg and perhaps a few bars later Shostakovich. But at the end of the day the end result is typically Brian.

The construction of the work is perfect. It is in three movements – two allegros sandwich a passacaglia. On the first listen I must confess that for some reason the work seemed a little unbalanced. On a further hearing it all fell into place. The balance between the soloist and the orchestra, which can ruin many a good concerto, seems just about right. At this point I ought to add that the playing by Bisengaliev is both impressive and moving in his working out of this complex and difficult score.

One of Brian’s fingerprints is the tension in his use of musical language. Much of this work is quite obviously tonal – yet suddenly he seems to push towards an atonality that would have made Ligetti proud. Some of his ‘tunes’ are diatonic and nod towards folk music but others push towards the breakdown of the key signature. Some melodies could be whistled by the proverbial message boy on his bicycle – others would seem to defy analysis. Often Brian’s harmonies are conventional; sometimes they are harsh. Yet the balance is always right. He never loses the plot.

The greatness of this work lies in the well contrived tension between competing elements and styles. There is an overt simplicity about much of this music that harks back to a more pastoral age, yet some of the more complex passages owe more to Berg and Schoenberg than to English Folk Song. Much of this is intense, probing the very heart of music and perhaps life itself. This is expressly so in the Lento. Yet sometimes there is a serenity that lulls the listener into a false sense of security. Occasionally the music leans towards naïve – there is a passage in the last movement that seems almost childish. Yet the balance remains; the equilibrium is never lost. The artistic integrity is never misplaced.

The final recommendation for this work is the blatantly obvious fact that Brian has used the great romantic concertos of the past as models. Of course he knew the Elgar and the Dvořák and the Tchaikovsky. The Walton was still in the future (1939). He has not copied or even parodied any of these works. What he has done is learnt the lessons of their style and their balance and created a masterpiece in his own right.

Finally, I want to suggest that this work in many ways was the culmination of progress in the genre. It is a great work and deserves the recognition that it has so long been denied. I can only hope that this present recording does much to remedy this oversight.

John France

see also review by Jonathan Woolf

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