Havergal BRIAN (1876 – 1972)
Orchestral Music Volume One – Early and Late Works
Legend: Ave atque vale (1968) [7:03]
Elegy (1954) [11:36]
Burlesque Variations on an Original Theme (1903) [25:35]
English Suite No.5 “Rustic Scenes” (1953) [19:13]
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Garry Walker
rec. City Halls, Glasgow, Scotland, 23-24 July 2009
TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC 0110 [63:29]
I have to admit to this being the disc I have most eagerly awaited hearing for some months. That being the case I am delighted to be able to report that it has fulfilled all my expectations if not exceeded them – let us all hope that the titling of this as ‘Volume 1’ really does augur well for an extended series of discs by this unique composer.
In recent years there has been a steady trickle of Brian’s orchestral works appearing on CD but when you dig a little deeper it becomes clear that these are in effect re-releases of performances where the originals date back some years. So in fact it is nearly ten years since the last ‘new’ recording – Psalm 23 on ClassicO [recorded 2002], then back into the 1990s for the abortive Marco Polo/Naxos ‘Brian Cycle’ (review; review, review), the 1980s for EMI’s brief flurry of interest using the RLPO (review), and the 1970s for the Leicestershire and Hull Schools Symphony Orchestra’s brave traversal of several discs with Unicorn-Kanchana and CBS. This is by no means a complete survey but it gives you a sense of the piece-meal attempts to commit Brian to disc.
Toccata Classics are proving to be valiant disciples of the Brian cause both on disc and in print. Recently I had the pleasure of reviewing the superb Havergal Brian on Music: Volume Two which Toccata have published (review). Both that project and this have been instigated under the watchful eye and guiding hand of the Havergal Brian Society and Brian expert Malcolm MacDonald. As part of the book review I commented - has ever a composer been so fortunate in their biographer / promoter as Brian with MacDonald? His knowledge, insight and understanding of this shamelessly idiosyncratic composer is little short of stupendous. That sense of dedication suffuses every element of this recording from the fascinating choice of repertoire on this well programmed CD to the fine engineering supporting excellent playing from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.
I have to admit that I have not heard any of this music before so I have no frame of reference with which to compare the current performances. Suffice to say there is an air of ‘rightness’ and conviction that is vital to bringing off this often quirky music. Having read the two volumes of Brian’s critical writings has only increased my appreciation of him as a composer. I have a suspicion that even among his more famous composer contemporaries he was the most knowledgeable about the latest developments in the musical scene. His journalistic writing shows him as an enthusiastic supporter of an extraordinarily wide and diverse range of then contemporary music. This, to my mind, adds significantly to his stature as a composer in his own right for instead of producing a mish-mash of musical influences his own work remains strikingly independent. It is well-known that he was largely self-taught as a composer but the choices he makes; structurally, harmonically or melodically are never made through ignorance instead they are guided by a quirky individualism. And therein lies the rub for the listener new to his sound-world; it can often seem that musical material is juxtaposed in a random and almost obtuse manner. Here is where Malcolm MacDonald proves to be such a valuable guide. Whether in this liner or in his definitive 3 volume study of the Brian Symphonies he makes it clear that in what might initially seem ramshackle and even chaotic there is actually a very sophisticated control of form and structure. Brian is dancing to a different tune and it can take the listener some time to ‘hear’ his message. Conductor Garry Walker has become fully attuned to the Brian idiom. As mentioned before these are strikingly confident and convincing performances – orchestras are phenomenally skilled these days but to project such security and conviction as is heard throughout this disc requires those exact same qualities to be projected from the conductor’s podium. It is rare indeed that such complex and demanding music is first heard played as here and it adds considerably to the positive impact of the disc. On the evidence of this disc Walker proves himself to be an interpreter of distinction.
Another remarkable thought is the fact that the works performed here span an astonishing 65 years. The earliest work is the 1903 Burlesque Variations on an Original Theme. Never performed in Brian’s lifetime this is its first professional performance. But why? Some Brian can be tough to digest on first sitting but not this work – it has instant appeal. Written when Brian was 27 it represents his first effort at large-scale orchestral composition. He scored the work for a large romantic orchestra with triple wind, standard brass – but including four trumpets – extended percussion, two harps and organ. Lasting some twenty-five minutes and consisting of a theme and seven variations this is a well balanced and fascinatingly wide-ranging piece. Yes there are moments where the orchestration feels opaque and indeed clumsy but these are repeatedly offset by passages of remarkable power, mystery and beauty. Why Burlesque Variations? – MacDonald offers a fascinating opinion; variation form recurs often in Brian’s works and usually he chose to take a banal/simple tune and then expand the seemingly limited potential of that melody beyond all expectation. Hence the Fantastic Variations of 1907 – based on ‘Three Blind Mice’ or The Symphonic Variations of 1916 – based on ‘Has anybody here seen Kelly?’ are just two examples. It is as if Brian is trying a kind of alchemy transforming the base material of a simple song into musical gold. Yes, the influences are often clearer here than in later Brian and clearly Elgar provided a model but I am pushed to think of any other work by a twenty-seven year old British composer from around the turn of that century of such confident quality. Although I know others will disagree I find Josef Holbrooke’s music to have an empty bombast and reliance on musical effect to which Brian never resorts while York Bowen is interesting and appealing but never challenging in the way Brian is. The closing pages of these variations do try to lift the simple tune onto a grandiose level which is beyond both the melody and the composer (at this stage in his career) but elsewhere there are brilliantly achieved musico-dramatic effects. Try Variation 2 – Tempesto and the simply gorgeously poignant Variation 3 – Elegy that follows. The latter is the emotional heart of the work and opens as a gently regretful valse triste very much in the style of the Nedbal or Sibelius works of that name before building to a powerful strenuous climax way outside the remit of those pieces. The return to the reflective opening is typical Brian in the rapid change of emotional direction before he builds it back to a climax of cinematic splendour. Subtle it is not but hard the heart not to be moved on some level – I love it. Curiously the London publisher Bosworth published the suite which contains Nedbal’s work in 1903 and it became the composer’s biggest hit. But the similarity is one of form nothing more. But it does point up another fact worth considering here; Brian’s music never sounds “English” in the pastoral sense of the word. More ‘stout and steaky’ than ‘cowpat’.
Chronologically, the next work on the disc dates from exactly fifty years later. How typically perverse of Brian in austerity Britain to produce a work that by title alone would seem to belong to the light music world of Edward German or Percy Fletcher. For sure this is lighter music than much of Brian’s output but it has far more substance and muscle than the bulk of the light music repertoire. Not that it is at all in tune with the prevailing trends in 1950s contemporary music either. Again, one has the abiding sense of Brian writing music that suited himself when it suited him. This proves to be another piece of instant appeal with the heart of the work being the second movement Reverie. Throughout the whole work and the orchestral writing – angularly expressive but with awkward parts for solo instruments and some thrilling brass scoring – there is a scale and sweep that is very impressive. Clearly this is not meant to be a work uttering the profoundest thoughts and feelings of the composer but it does show the confidence and expertise with which Brian handled his resources. I would suggest ignoring the titles – I couldn’t help wondering if Brian has used such deliberately twee and diminutive headings in a provocative and ironic manner. Here is another curious parallel – the central pair of movements are scored first for strings alone – the aforementioned Reverie, and then wind and horns - Restless Stream. Vaughan Williams did much the same in his almost exactly contemporaneous Symphony No.8 – although the wind scherzo comes first before the string Cavatina. Not that we can accuse Vaughan Williams of any kind of plagiarism – Brian’s Suite was not to be heard for twenty years (neither can the accusation be reversed – the Vaughan Williams was not premiered until 1956). The closing Village Revels is also the final music on the disc – again ignore the title, this is quite unlike any revel I can imagine but it provides an exciting conclusion to all the works here.
MacDonald explains Brian’s recurring use of the term Elegy to describe movements or individual works. This was the title ultimately given to a 1954 composition originally called A song of sorrow. Brian renamed it some sixteen years later when reassessing his back catalogue with a view to publication. The rationale being that the original title implied a kind of emotional one-dimension that does not encompass the full range of this very impressive work. MacDonald points towards a definition that encompasses both the classical laments of Ovid and the romantic poetic works of Goethe and others. As a critic Brian wrote enthusiastically about Busoni and MacDonald sees a link with such works as that composer’s Nocturne Symphonique or the Sarabande and Cortege. But influence or inspiration is all this link should be seen as. Again Brian has produced a work as striking in its individuality as its expressive power. Jagged and rugged energy courses through this work. There are more of the typical Brian Symphonic fingerprints here, a sense of a restless quest the music searching and unstable. Yet at the same time there is an underlying feel of something grand and ceremonial. MacDonald sees it as a long slow struggle from C minor to the light of C major. Elsewhere on the disc I am a little uneasy about Brian’s penchant for almost hyper-active percussion writing. By my reckoning the percussion should point a moment in the score – dynamic alone need not be a factor – for Brian there seems to be a percussive ‘happening’ in nearly every bar. But here, massed side-drums set against tip-toeing xylophone creates some rather special effects. Again I have nothing but praise for the bravura confidence of the playing of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. There is some truly thrilling brass writing here dispatched with total aplomb. Much as I enjoy the discovery of the Variations on this disc if I had to choose one work to represent Brian it would be this Elegy. As this represents its first recording I would suggest that that alone is enough to merit buying this disc.
My only relative musical disappointment on this disc was with the Legend: Ave atque vale which opens it. In its own right it is remarkable because it is the work of a ninety two year old man. The title which means ‘hail and farewell’ is taken from Catallus’ poetic elegy to his drowned brother written in about 56 BC. MacDonald describes it as being ‘crammed to bursting point with disparate ideas’ which is a sympathetic way of saying perhaps it has not been edited or structured with as much discipline as earlier works. To my ear – given that this is NOT a judgment borne of extended familiarity – it sounds too rambling and disparate in its elements. Here the percussion has an absolute field day throughout without really justifying their continuous presence in musical terms. Possibly this is the kind of work that Brian’s detractors might single out as showing his weaknesses. However, it has the great good sense not to outstay its welcome and by representing just seven minutes of over an hour of vintage Brian no collector need hesitate on this piece’s account. On a positive note it does act as an extraordinary tribute to the undying vitality and individuality of Brian to very end of his long life.
Hopefully, it will be clear by now that I consider this a very special disc – exactly the kind of high quality combination of rare repertoire, performance and technical presentation that collectors hope for. For those as yet unfamiliar with the Havergal Brian I think this could act as an excellent introduction. On the recent Testament release (review) of the famous Boult/BBC performance of Brian’s legendary Gothic Symphony the disc concludes with an interview with the composer where he underlines the fact that he wrote music with little or no expectation of hearing it performed. Instead he was responding a personal creative imperative that could not be denied. How gratified he would be to know that finally his music is beginning to receive the attention is deserves. A Volume 2 from this same team is essential and this current disc will be one of my discs of the year without doubt.
Will be one of my discs of the year without doubt.