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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
review by Jonathan Woolf