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Havergal BRIAN (1876-1972)
Orchestral Music - Vol. 1 - 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 Themes (1953) [19:13]
BBCScottish Symphony Orchestra/Garry Walker
rec. City Halls, Glasgow, 23-24 July 2009. DDD

Experience Classicsonline

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 CBSLP (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 its 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 Symphonic Variations.

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:

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 by episode.

Rob Barnett

See also review by Nick Barnard



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