Let me declare my interest from the outset. I am a member of the Havergal
Brian Society and have been a far from indiscriminate supporter of Brians
music since I first encountered the sixth symphony in 1975.
This is not the first commercial recording of Havergal Brians piano
music. In 1982 (just before the dawn of the compact disc) the Northern British
music shop Gough and Davey (Hull) issued an LP comprising the major pieces
featured here. However that LP is long gone and although Peter Hills
performances were remarkable and the recording was an early digital effort,
my impression (and it is some years since I heard the Hill LP) is that
Clarkes concentration, patterned intellect and passion sweep the day.
If you wish to sample a single track to get a feeling for the music try No.
7 (Prelude and Fugue in C minor).
Anyone who enjoys say the music of Medtner, Sorabji, Foulds, Szymanowski
or Reger owes it to themselves to get this disc. It is not that Brian sounds
entirely like any of these composers but there are aspects of each of their
styles in Brians piano works.
Havergal Brian is known for writing the massive Gothic Symphony which
can now be heard in a Marco Polo recording. In addition there are 31 other
symphonies as well as a generous clutch of operas (The Cenci was premiered
in 1997), concertos for violin and cello (one each), miscellaneous orchestral
pieces and the lost giant masterwork Prometheus Unbound (soli, chorus
and orchestra) for which only a vocal score exists. If anyone knows where
the full score is please contact me. People perhaps may be surprised to be
confronted with a whole disc of Brians piano music.
The Prelude - John Dowlands Fancy was suggested to Brian by
Granville Bantock who himself had written an antique English
Suite which has been recorded alongside The Bantock Hebridean Symphony
(Marco Polo). This one is a tart and serious confection sounding quite
distinctive but recalling similar exercises by Grainger and Warlock.
The Double Fugue in E flat opens in a torrential fugue in which Clarke
maintains crystalline clarity without compromising cascading power. This
Regerian piece resolves, most surprisingly, into the quietest raindrop
impressionism without ever abandoning the heights-scaling nature of the fugue.
A dark lightning strike of a figure closes the work in a violent confidence.
The Four Miniatures are elfin, strange, moonlit Pierrot sketches.
There is nothing of the knockabout here. The second piece is quite substantial.
It sounds fugal but its seriousness is interspersed with little stamping
sections. The other pieces indicate a Sorabjian impressionism and the final
offering, gamely gambolling and awkwardly hopping, suggests Deliuss
Beggars of Baghdad (Hassan).
Prelude and Fugue in C minor has a nobly galloping and rolling theme
of romantic long-limbed power. It reminded me of the piano music of Danish
composer Rued Langgaard and of the Cello Sonata of John Foulds. The work
achieves a striking grandeur which decays into quiet resignation and pellucid
The three songs are sung by Esther King (mezzo). They are: The Land of
Dreams; The Birds; The Defiled Sanctuary. The Land of Dreams is
in Cyril Scott and Frank Bridge territory. All three are sung with nice clarity
and a slightly dissonant tartness. They often seem to inhabit the same Pierrot
world as the Four Miniatures. I also thought of the less securely tonal songs
of Lambert (Li Tai Po), Warlock and Bernard Van Dieren. The Defiled Sanctuary
is a tough song which ultimately I did not find attractive but I was
left with a strong sense of awe in the presence of its sheer power.
Prelude and Fugue in D minor/major has a Bachian purity and continuous
flow undisturbed by tempo changes. There is a touch of Gerald Finzis
Grand Fantasia and Fugue. The swing of the sea is heard at 1:30: a
grand swell and the crash and backwash of the waves against the cliffs. All
the time you are conscious of great discipline, a great steady striding tread
and of starry nights.
The slightly dotty and humorous Three Illuminations are sung in two
versions. Version 1 - piano and speaker; Version 2: piano solo. This seems
to belong in the world of the music hall and concert party where during the
1890s to 1930s recitations with music were very popular. Joseph Holbrooke
(Brians lifelong friend) was inspired to write a whole sequence of
tone poems and related works by hearing a recitation of a poem by Edgar Alan
Poe set to music by Stanley Hawley. Brians works and the words of the
accompanying are out of the same loony stable as his satirical opera
Bournemouth born pianist Raymond Clarke contributed the valuable notes. The
only black mark in that direction is that no texts are provided. There is
a good photo of Brian inside with a face which speaks of intellect and humanity.
The CD cover features a detail from John Goldblatts much used photo
of the elderly Brian.
As a sequel to his recording on Hyperion of the complete solo piano music
by Robert Simpson, Clarke will soon record Simpsons piano concerto
with Vernon Handley conducting. This will compete with the IMP/Carlton/BBC
Recording (now deleted) of John Ogdons concert performance. The Simpson
piano concerto was performed by Piers Lane at the Proms in 1998.
Clarke is by no means a specialist in the off-beat and neglected. He has
performed the complete sonatas of Mozart, Beethoven, Prokofiev and Schubert.
His active repertoire includes all four Tippett sonatas and the three by
Boulez alongside the solo piano music of Shostakovich and Copland. His Minerva
Athene CD of the piano sonatas of William Mathias
and John Pickard is also reviewed at this site.
The Havergal Brian Society can be contacted at 5 Eastbury Road, Watford WD1
4PT, UK. They publish Brians complete piano music in a single volume
at a cost of £11 post free anywhere in the world. The e- mail address
is available from me.
This is very impressive music with a power, poetry and swing which should
guarantee it a great deal of attention. The music is warmly rewarding to
the attentive listener. Congratulations to Athene for securing the recording.
Another point of view from David Wright
William Havergal Brian was born in Staffordshire in 1876 and died in 1972.
Like Elgar, he had no professional musical training but, unlike Elgar, he
was subject to consequent criticism as being an 'amateur'. He left school
at 12 and in 1927 completed his massive Gothic Symphony. He composed
32 symphonies , the last 20 in the last twelve years of his life. He wrote
five operas, a cello concerto, songs and some piano music.
Many British composers simply could not write for the piano and such include
Vaughan Williams, Elgar and Walton. I am not convinced that Brian could either.
The Double Fugue, as the other fugal works, are academically and
technically competent but predominantly serious, slow and
uneventful. Some pages of the Double Fugue and the D major Fugue
contain unplayable stretches of the hand. No pianist or able composer would
have written like this. Without copying the example of a previous recording,
where two pianists were employed for these passages, Clarke plays the music
by arpeggiating the chords.
Of the piano music, apart from the attractive Dowland's Fancy the
music is very serious and unremitting; there is no sparkle or cheer, nothing
to raise any shouts of encouragement or spontaneous rapturous applause.
I found the Three Illuminations in the version for speaker and piano
awkward, patronising and an embarrassment producing a sort of sense of shame.
The songs were of no real consequence.
But this is an interesting and important disc. Clarke's playing is, as usual,
exemplary and the recording is clear and vibrant.