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The LSSO Havergal Brian recordings

The Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra secured their own place in musical history when they made the very first commercial recordings of Havergal Brian's music for the Unicorn and CBS labels in 1972 and 1974 respectively. To understand how these recordings actually came about it's probably a good starting point to refer to a couple of press articles that appeared in the local and national newspapers at the time: 

Leicester Mercury, 1972
County schools orchestra to make first recording of Composer's work  

The Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra, with their conductor, Eric Pinkett, are to have the distinction of making the first gramophone record of music by the 96-year-old British composer Havergal Brian. Rehearsals are already under way and the recording will be done at the De Montfort Hall, Leicester, next July. The chosen works are the 10th and 21st symphonies and the record issued by Unicorn records is expected to be on sale by the following autumn. Havergal Brian, born in Staffordshire and now living in Shoreham, Sussex, has become something of a legend in the musical world as a composer who is hardly ever performed but who nevertheless has worked quietly and contentedly over the years to amass an output that includes 32 symphonies (including the two hour long Gothic) five operas, concertos for violin and cello and numerous choral works and songs. The fact that much of his music demands large forces is an economical reason for its rare appearances in concert halls and for the complete absence of recordings. However, he does have determined champions - among them Dr. Robert Simpson (A member of the BBC's music staff) who was mainly responsible for some recent broadcasts of Brian's works, and Alan Watkins, Press Association's deputy news editor and a music enthusiast with early training as a timpanist and percussionist. The recording project really all started from the time when Alan Watkins listened to the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra's existing discs. He was greatly impressed by the standard of playing and was struck by the thought that here was the solution to the economical problems of giving permanence to some of Brian's music. He wrote to the composer outlining the idea and obtained permission to explore possibilities. Within a short time, Mr. Watkins arranged a meeting between John Goldsmith (director of Unicorn records), Eric Pinkett and Dr. Simpson. The outcome was a wholehearted and enthusiastic decision to go ahead and the chosen works on Dr. Simpson's recommendation were the 10th and 21st symphonies both of about 30 minutes duration and for which orchestral parts for the 100 instrumentalists were available. Dr. Simpson, who is the foremost authority on Havergal Brian's music, has since spent a day at the County School of Music at Birstall where he talked to the Schools Orchestra about the composer and the two symphonies and listened to them being rehearsed by Eric Pinkett. He was delighted with their progress and reported favourably to Havergal Brian.

Sunday Express, 1972

Havergal Brian, Britain's most prolific but possibly least-performed classical composer, is to have his music recorded for the first time at the age of 95. Paradoxically the disc will be cut by our top youth orchestra, the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra. Mr. Brian, described by BBC music expert Dr. Robert Simpson as a composer of the stature of Elgar is one of music's great enigmas. He has written 32 symphonies, more than three times as many as Beethoven, five operas, 114 songs, not to mention choral works. Yet until now none of them has been recorded. Says the composer from his seaside home at Shoreham, Sussex: "I am absolutely delighted that these young people are to record two of my symphonies. It shows how good they are. They are not easy works to play."

Symphonies Nos.10 and 21, conducted by James Loughran and Eric Pinkett respectively, were recorded at the De Montfort Hall, Leicester in 1972. The producer was Robert Simpson and Angus McKenzie was the recording engineer. The LP was released by Unicorn Records to great critical acclaim in 1973. A special edition of the television programme Aquarius called The Unknown Warrior gave considerable coverage to the recording session and a camera crew also joined members of the orchestra during a visit they made to the composer's home in Shoreham-by-Sea.
 
Alan Watkins, who was a prime mover in making the Unicorn recordings actually happen, made the following four comments on the GMG Classical Music Havergal Brian forum in 2006. They provide an excellent insight into the recording sessions and also the difficulties encountered by the orchestra when they worked from the less than accurate printed parts.

1) The world premiere recordings of ANY music by Havergal Brian were symphonies 10/21 for Unicorn, played by the Leicestershire Schools Symphony conducted by Eric Pinkett and Jimmy Loughran from the Halle. I know that because it was my idea and I organised it in conjunction with John Goldsmith, then the founder and owner of Unicorn Records, and Bob Simpson, composer and (at the time) BBC Music Department and Brian enthusiast. Several times I flew in from Prague to help and coach the percussion section in this very difficult music. It was recorded in the De Montfort Hall, Leicester, with me at one time standing behind the timpanist (a young lady of about 14/15 or so I think) to help her with the very difficult counting in case she came unstuck (She didn't). 

Correction by JW: the young lady Alan mentions was in fact the xylophone player, Corinne Bradly. The timpanist in the 1972 LSSO recording session was Stephen Whittaker who, some years later, played the xylophone solo in the Schmidt/LSO Gothic.
 
2) The world premiere recordings of 10/21 or anything of Brian were by the kids of the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra (ages 14-18) who, on vinyl, were the first in the world to bring any of this music to life. I have previously posted on this and how we took the orchestra to meet the composer. The 10/21 recording is not perfect. There are certainly intonation problems (particularly with the strings) but this is often immensely difficult music to play, even for professional musicians, let alone a bunch of kids at school. They played so well, however, that I was in tears from time to time. One of the most moving moments of my life was seeing the orchestra meet the composer, sitting in a great semi circle around him, firing questions and chatting very happily with him. It was such a memorable occasion. They loved him and he loved them and I feel sure it would have brought more meaning to his music and to their playing.
 
3) The choice of symphony 10/21 (by Bob) was partly dictated by the fact that the parts for same were available and vaguely readable but only just with no cues and very poor page turns for some of the orchestra (wind in particular). I went through the percussion parts of both and ended up rewriting the set of parts for both inserting cues and correcting (twice) inaccurate rest indications and in 21 restoring a xylophone part that was correct in the full score but completely missing in the parts. Many wrong notes in the parts for tuned percussion in both symphonies. A mess, in fact. At that time all the parts were hand written, i.e not engraved.
 
4) It was a very long time ago and I cannot say accurately for certain but I don't think the composer wrote out for the parts for Symphony 10/21. His hand written notation that I have seen is difficult to follow - very difficult in some cases - and these parts were "well written" in terms of the calligraphy as it were but terribly inaccurate. It might have been him but, if so, he was at great age and they simply got corrected for him. I personally do not think it was him because I think he would not have made the page turn mistakes (particularly for wind and strings) nor left out an entire xylophone part (an instrument that mattered to him).

As a former member of the LSSO, having read with interest these Havergal Brian forum comments, I decided to upload The Unknown Warrior video onto Youtube and was immediately struck by the level of interest this created. This gave rise to one particular email exchange with J.Z. (Johan) Herrenberg, a member of the Havergal Brian Society in October 2007 as follows:

Absolutely incredible, being able to see this at last (i.e.The Unknown Warrior video), 30 years after discovering this great composer! Very moving. And in particular seeing the opening of the Tenth played (an opening that made an indelible impression when I heard it for the first time) is really wonderful. It's great the documentary is still extant. This recording (10 & 21) has been extremely important to me personally. In 1980 I started studying English at the Free University in Amsterdam, a bit reluctantly, as I was determined to become a writer, and eventually I stopped coming. A friend of mine was living in digs in the 17th-century canal ring area. His mother had found Brian's 10th & 21st in a local library in the east of the country, and ever since hearing the Tenth I had become completely obsessed by it. So I called at my friend's lodgings every other day, and if he was in my only request was - 'I want to hear the Tenth!'

The Unicorn record was released in May 1973 and received some very positive reviews, especially one from Calum MacDonald in Records and Recording. He was bowled over by the 10th but slightly more critical of the 21st. The reviewer put his cards firmly on the table, however, when he claimed: “.....this is about the most important issue of 1973.”

The icing on the cake was a tremendous review from the E.M.G. monthly newsletter:
 
Leicester Mercury, December 1973
Distinction for LSSO 

It is quite an accolade to get into the Best Records of the Year, a list published annually by E.M.G. in its monthly letter, so there is a look of the cat licking the cream on the faces of the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra. Their record is of Brian's Symphonies Nos. 10 and 21 and is one of the 60 selected out of thousands produced during the year 1973. 

In case you may never have heard of the composer Brian the Briton, you need feel no shame for he has been woefully neglected and this is the first recording of any music by one of this country's most remarkable composers.

Havergal Brian died last year at the fine old age of 96. He wrote 32 symphonies and five operas. The review of the record says: "Brian's music is among the most original to have been written in this century and it is doubly exciting and satisfying to hear the verve with which this remarkable youth orchestra attacks the formidable task set by these two difficult but very rewarding scores."

Symphony No. 21 was composed when Brian was 87 and was one of 22 symphonies he wrote after the age of 80. Late flowering if you like! And pleasant to record that in this triumph of youth and age, Leicestershire has played a significant part.

Following the success of the Unicorn issue, a second Brian album was recorded by the LSSO in 1974.
 
Leicester Mercury, April 1974
LSSO puts four more works on record 

The Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra will be in Brighton tomorrow to make two recordings simultaneously. The BBC and CBS Records will each have a control room to tape performances of Havergal Brian's setting of the 23rd Psalm and his 22nd Symphony and also of Berlioz's "Resurrexit" and his "Death of Orpheus". All this music is being recorded for the first time - the BBC's tape for eventual Radio 3 broadcast and CBS's for processing into a disc which it is expected will be issued in the autumn. The conductor for all four works is Laszlo Heltay and the choir is the Brighton Festival Chorus, which Heltay directs. The LSSO was first in the field in making an LP of Havergal Brian's music with their brisk-selling disc of the 10th and 21st Symphonies, conducted respectively by the Halle's James Loughran and the orchestra's permanent director, Eric Pinkett who is Leicestershire's music adviser and founder of the County School of Music. Once again, the BBC's Robert Simpson (stalwart champion of Brian's music) is concerned with production and he is responsible too for performances of the two Berlioz rarities. Brian died, it will remembered, without ever hearing the very first record of his music and it is interesting that following the LSSO's disc there is a projected one or other of the composer's symphonies by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Hove Town Hall was the venue for the 22nd Symphony and the 23rd Psalm sessions where the orchestra was conducted by Laszlo Heltay. Eric Pinkett completed the disc with his account of the English Suite No. 5 (Rustic Scenes) which was set down at Leicester’s De Montfort Hall. The recording sessions were produced by Robert Simpson (Hove) and William Robson (Leicester) and the disc was issued by CBS in February 1975.
 
The LSSO was at its peak in the 1970s and 1980s. The orchestra’s patron and regular conductor, Sir Michael Tippett, expressed the view that it was on a par with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. That may have been an exaggeration but the orchestra, inspired by the one and only Eric Pinkett, could certainly lay claim to be the best regional schools orchestra in England. Working under the direction of musicians that included Tippett, Bliss, Previn, Groves, Del Mar and Boult gave many young people, including myself, an unforgettable musical education. The LSSO has a special place in the Havergal Brian story and I know that many of my friends from all those years ago still have a real affection for HB.
 
John Whitmore 

Footnote
Press reviews and newspaper articles relating to the LSSO Havergal Brian LPs can be downloaded from here.

Further information about Eric Pinkett and the orchestra, including a comprehensive recording archive, photographs, video links and press articles can be found on the LSSO memorabilia website and Eric Pinkett's book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 


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