Toccata and Havergal Brian have been inseparable since they
published Malcolm Macdonald's three volume study of the symphonies
starting in the later 1970s. Since then they have also produced
two collections of Brian's music journalism.
Now they turn to the Brian works that other companies have left
alone or to which they long ago applied semi-amateur forces.
The Burlesque Variations were first recorded by
the City of Hull Youth SO with Geoffrey Heald-Smith in about
1980. They were issued on LP and then on a double length CD.
This was a heroic endeavour but the playing spalled, creaked
and groaned with queasy intonation and stumbles. Well short
of a faithful representation. The way has long been clear for
a fully professional and considered performance. The Variations
exemplify a then popular concert form. Examples abound. The
most famous is the Enigma but more obscure Ewardian contemporary
orchestral sets have been recorded including the Helena Variations
by Bantock (Hyperion) and popular song-based sets by Josef
Holbrooke (CPO, Beulah): Three Blind Mice and The
Girl I Left Behind Me.
The English Suite No. 5 is a later work but written
deliberately to be accessible by comparison with his complex
and sometimes congestedly dense symphonic style of the time.
The Suite - the last of five - was previously recorded in 1975
by the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra with Laszlo
Heltay conducting. The orchestra sounded, back then, to be a
more capable outfit than their North-Eastern cousins who made
their Cameo Classics recording about a decade later on the cusp
of the change to CD. The result, while blemished, was pretty
listenable and still is. It was only ever available on a mid-price
CBS LP (61612) along with Psalm 23 and the insuperably
concentrated masterpiece that is the Symphonia Brevis (Symphony
No. 22). This Toccata recording is the first practical opportunity
to hear the Suite.
The Elegy was written the year after the Suite
No. 5. Brian pulled no punches. There is a high quotient of
strikingly elegiac violin music which here is crooned as a soliloquy
but the setting speaks of troubled times and discontent. Terse
and taciturn brass and percussion protests precede an extended
valedictory epilogue of gleaming moonlit Mahlerian violins.
Ave Atque Vale - a seemingly frank farewell to
life was written four years before his death. Only the 32nd
Symphony was to follow. It is in his most elliptical plenary
mature style. Like the Brevis it is possible now, through
multiple hearings, to close in on this work which has been neglected.
I say neglected but there was Myer Fredman's unbroadcast studio
taping from 1973 with the very same LPO who went on, at about
the same time, to record symphonies 6 and 16 for Lyrita. The
raucous collisions of defiant march figures, long striving melodies
for the violins and belligerent rhythms are as rambunctious
as those of Charles Ives in his Fourth Symphony. There are some
especially poignant pages for the violins towards the end but
gangly obstreperous contributions from brass and percussion
often cut in. One can find elegiac music here if you look but
it’s side by side with confrontation. Mood shifts are rapid
but tolling woodwind, drum-roll and gong stroke finally grasp
a resigned calm.
The Edwardian Burlesque Variations chart a theme,
six variations and a finale. The theme is calm. The Variations
are: I gallopingly headlong, II stormy in a super-Berlioz manner,
III tender somewhat in the manner of Sibelius or Elgar, IV flowingly
smooth with a touch of Brahms Second Symphony about it, V trippingly
grand and VI tenderly and glowingly serene - very touching indeed.
In the Finale in the form of an Overture Brian adopts
a manner familiar from Brahms' Tragic Overture and Parry's
The English Suite No. 5 - Rustic Themes is in
the regulation four movements. The titles are archetypes of
the genre: Trotting to Market, Reverie, The
Restless Stream and Village Revels. It dates from
Coronation Year and was written at about the time he was working
on his opera The Cenci between symphonies 9 and 10..The
first movement is emotionally nuanced. It's nothing like Harty's
A Fair Day or Frankel's Carriage and Pair. It
ends with whooping brass like a Mahler scherzo. Reverie is
a calmer affair but again the harmonic style is dense - almost
Germanic. The Restless Stream ambles along but you could
not call it carefree - it is after all restless. Village
Revels is the most innocent of the four where surface equals
substance – not that commonly encountered in Brian. The writing
could almost be by Haydn Wood or Montague Phillips. There's
even a cheeky little episode in which Grainger might have been
in Brian's mind.
The notes, in English only, leave nothing to be desired. We
are in the hands of Malcolm Macdonald so the writing is exceedingly
well informed, intelligent and accessible. He knows precisely
the right route to balance the academic with virile advocacy.
As some will know he is also editor of the erudite Tempo pathfinder
magazine and a composer. His piano piece A Waste of Seas
is an extraordinarily succinct and stormily evocative piece
that should have been recorded long ago.
Back to Brian on Toccata: this is the series to follow.
With Dutton's 1950s radio broadcasts of symphonies 11 and 14
on Dutton, the reissues of the Marco Polo Brian CDs on Naxos
and the Gothic Symphony performances this year (2011)
in Brisbane and at the Proms one can only celebrate the confident
start of a fresh and we hope long sustained Brian renaissance.
There has never been a time when more Brian has been so simply
accessible to the curious and the already won-over.
Hats off to Toccata and the Havergal Brian Society for supporting
this venture: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you wanted a less forbidding route into an appreciation of
Brian then go for this disc. The tougher later works are short,
there are no symphonies to contend with and even the two multi-movement
pieces are internally tracked - variation by variation. episode
See also review by Nick