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HAVERGAL BRIAN (1876-1972) The Complete Piano Music  Raymond Clarke (piano) Esther King (mezzo) Tessa Spong (speaker) Recorded at Potton Hall, Dunwich 19-20 June 1997   Minerva Athene ATH CD12 recording sponsored by the Havergal Brian Society 76:34



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 Brian’s music since I first encountered the sixth symphony in 1975.

This is not the first commercial recording of Havergal Brian’s 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 Hill’s 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 Clarke’s 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 Brian’s 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 Brian’s piano music.

The Prelude - John Dowland’s 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 Delius’s 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 clarity

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 Finzi’s 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 (Brian’s 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. Brian’s 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 Goldblatt’s 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 Simpson’s piano concerto with Vernon Handley conducting. This will compete with the IMP/Carlton/BBC Recording (now deleted) of John Ogdon’s 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 Brian’s 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.


Rob Barnett

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.


David Wright

(Raymond Clarke solos)




Rob Barnett

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