TWO REVIEWS HERE
Havergal BRIAN (1876 – 1972) Orchestral music vol. 2 - Music from the operas
Symphonic Variations on ‘Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?’ (1921-22) [12:17]
Three Pieces from Turandot (1949–51) [17:08]
Faust: Night Ride of Faust and Mephistopheles (1955-6) [7:21]
The Cenci: Preludio tragico (1951-2) [13:42]
A Turandot Suite (arr. Malcolm MacDonald) (1949–51) [22:08]
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Garry Walker
rec. City Halls, Glasgow, 25-26 June 2009. DDD
TOCCATA TOCC 0113 [72:36]
Last year was rather a good year for admirers of Havergal Brian. When I wrote the review for Volume 1 of this series last April I made the point that that disc was the first ‘new’ – not re-release – in around a decade. One year on from that superb disc we now have an equally impressive volume 2. In the interim we have had a superb disc of symphonies from Dutton and witnessed what was without doubt the event of the 2011 Proms – a stunning performance of the Gothic Symphony now enshrined on a fine pair of Hyperion discs. Apart from the quality of all these discs it is particularly pleasing to see that three different labels are now supporting the Brian cause.
I am sure that any collectors who have already acquired some or most of the above will not need my prompting to buy this new disc. All of the good impressions garnered by Volume 1 are confirmed here and – possibly most importantly – the stature and significance of Brian as a composer of real unique worth is strengthened. That is the joy of an ever-increasing roster of discs of music by a relatively unknown composer. The listener starts to be able to make connections across genres and decades of a creative life so what once seemed disparate and lacking coherence starts to gel into an impressively cogent and individual view of the musical world. The ‘problem’ with Brian was really one of his own making – a cussed determination to plough his own furrow regardless of the implications. The flip side of his oft-quoted expectation of never hearing his works played is that he did not exercise any practical pragmatism as far as scoring or subject matter that might have ensured they did get played. A case in point is the repertoire here; four of his five operas date from the decade after World War II. In austerity Britain any new opera was going to be carefully scrutinised for viability from a financial point of view before any musical considerations could come into play. What does Brian do?; he writes works requiring big forces based on what might be termed old-fashioned style subjects certainly not in line with the expectations of institutions such as Covent Garden. None of that matters a jot over half a century later when we can enjoy the music in its own right.
Given that the sessions from which this derives were at pretty much the same time as those for Volume 1 and that all of the creative and production team and venue are the same it will no surprise that all of my superlatives from the previous review can be rolled out, dusted down and used again. Conductor Garry Walker paces the music to perfection. I continue to marvel at his sure handling of material that at first hearing overflows with motifs and colours but thereby threatens to confound the unknowing ear trying to perceive a logic and structure. The playing of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is a joy in itself. The sheer virtuosity demanded from all departments is revealed by the superb engineering of Graeme Taylor under the direction of producer Simon Lord. With the exception of the first piece all of the music receives its world premiere recording. In the case of the first work, the Symphonic Variations “Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?” this new recording significantly trumps the earlier one in technical and musical terms. I have to say I retain a special affection for that recording on Forlane from the unlikely team of Mozart specialist Leopold Hager and the often fallible Orchestra of Radio Luxembourg. They did a far better job than might have been expected – the 2 CD set Masterpieces of the English Musical Renaissance (UCD 16724/5) can still be found at a price and has continuing value in that it includes all six of the symphonic movements Brian extracted from his fabled first opera The Tigers.
There is a recurring thread in Brian’s work of taking a simple, even trite, tune and subjecting to massive transformation. The term ‘variations’ somehow does not do justice to the process of deconstruction and reassembly Brian applies. The fact that he does this here almost as an underscore to a busy scene in an opera is all the more remarkable. Again, I marvel at the sheer fecundity of Brian’s invention – nine incident-filled variations crammed into just over twelve minutes of which one – a Lento interlude – occupies nearly 1/3 of the total time. The more I hear Brian the more it strikes me that his music has more happening in it at any given moment than almost anyone else I can think of. By that I do not mean simply thickly scored; yes they often are, but rather I’m referring to an Ivesian delight in the collision and overlapping of individual lines, motifs or tonalities. This particular CD does focus on stage works which are by definition pictorial and descriptive but the density of material is daunting and it does require quite an investment of time from the listener to begin to perceive the logic of the music laid before one. To get the most from the experience requires more conscious effort on behalf of the listener than much music which to some degree can retain its effect while passively washing over you.
There are two grouped selections from Brian’s second opera Turandot. Elements of the story will be familiar to those who know Puccini’s opera of the same name but apparently the libretto is closer to the Gozzi original. None of Brian’s operas have ever been staged so it is hard to be sure how innately theatrical they are. Brian selected three orchestral passages from the first act of Turandot to form the suite included here and they are both dramatic and pictorial in the best sense and certainly substantial but, ingrate that I am having now heard them as excerpts, I would really like to hear them in operatic context. The same is true of the suite that Malcolm MacDonald has excerpted from the second and third acts of the same opera. I had saved mentioning MacDonald's name until this point. I have said it before and will no doubt say it again; was ever a composer as fortunate as Brian in having MacDonald as his prophet in the wilderness. His passion for and knowledge of this composer is little short of stupendous. This is evidenced by the suite he produced here in 1975 for the simple reason that having studied the opera score he believed the only way he would ever get to hear any of this music in his lifetime was by preparing an orchestral suite. This then had to wait twenty years for a first performance and another fourteen after that to be recorded. Yet MacDonald's passion and belief in the importance of Brian continues to burn brightly and shines through every word of his extensive, detailed and very interesting liner-note. Again, I have said this before - by the music alone Brian rarely gives up his secrets immediately or easily and it is a vital part of his reassessment that the listener has MacDonald as his guide pointing out key moments in the structure of the music.
The remaining two pieces on this disc are my personal favourites. Goethe's Faust was a seminal work for many artists but particularly Brian. The Night Ride recorded hear is a five minute showpiece for orchestra which comes late in the opera illustrating Faust and Mephistopheles riding through the night to the prison where Gretchen is being held. As that brief description might imply this is a wild ride full of strange orchestral effects and propulsive energy - again all brilliantly executed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and recorded in demonstration quality sound. Quite different is the Preludio tragico which is the extended - thirteen and half minute - overture Brian wrote for his third opera The Cenci in 1951-2. The curiosity here is that Berthold Goldschmidt won the 1951 Festival of Britain Opera prize with his work Beatrice Cenci written I think just before the Brian work. Since Covent Garden - to their shame - refused to stage the Goldschmidt one can only assume that this is a piece of pure coincidence. Certainly, this is vintage Brian - as Macdonald says - and it contains pre-echoes of the concise symphonic form he was to explore later. Although there are pictorial and narrative elements to the work this is the piece that to my mind stands most impressively free of any operatic associations. In the liner, MacDonald with characteristic skill points out the various themes and how they relate to the characters and plot of the work but Brian's real skill is to fuse those illustrative themes into a work wholly satisfying without relying on programmatic detail. This is due in part to the fact that in this prelude Brian treats the thematic material symphonically rather than simply laying out the purple patches to come. Again, I must compliment Garry Walker on the skill with which he binds together the often wildly different passages into such an impressive whole. Credit too to Toccata for the all-round excellence of this production - right down to the tracking of the individual variations in the first work and the notating of the liner with track numbers and timings. This really is music that benefits from repeated detailed listening and simple things like that help enormously. As does the printing of the liner in a good clear reasonably sized font on brilliant white paper. All in all another stunning disc of great value and musical worth, I hope a third volume will follow.
And a review from Rob Barnett
Havergal Brian is usually glimpsed on CD through his symphonies. Most recently there has been his Gothic Symphony (Hyperion). With the present CD he is encountered through orchestral material from his largely overlooked and pretty much unperformed five operas. If you were wondering, they are:-
The Tigers (1917-29)
Turandot, Prinzessin von China (1951)
The Cenci (1951-52)
The jolly first piece is a set of variations on the music hall song Has anyone here seen Kelly? In this he followed the same path as his friend Joseph Holbrooke who had earlier written three sets of orchestral variations on popular songs. The Brian set forms part of his anti-war satirical opera The Tigers. The opera was once broadcast by the BBC in the early 1980s in a studio recording session conducted by Lionel Friend. The music subjects the song to subversive treatment with the least so bearing the stamp of The Gothic and of that work’s dedicatee Richard Strauss. It moves smoothly between sinister and seductive, innocent and knowing. The style has more in parallel with his own Fifth Orchestral Suite (the LSSO CBS LP recording now obtainable from KlassicHaus) than with his productions of the 1940s and 1950s. Much of it is sumptuously romantic though sometimes gawky. Kelly emerges as a sort of elusive Eulenspiegel. Track 9 offers a full statement of the song.
There’s a ripplingly anxious night-ride from the opera Faust. The gloriously sumptuous harp makes a grand appearance for a change. Discontinuity and rapid gear-changes are again in evidence and register in this five-plus minute orchestral showpiece. In spirit, if not in packaging, this can be grouped with Liadov's Baba Yaga and Schierbeck's Häxä.
I have known the Preludio Tragico to the opera The Cenci from a tape I made of the Preludio’s BBC broadcast in September 1976. Harry Newstone conducted the New Philharmonia at the Alexandra Palace. It is good to hear it at last in such fine sound. The Preludio is a whirlwind of coruscating impressions, jaunty grandeur and bleak tragedy. It is a fittingly blood-curdling echo of the sort of Elizabethan revenge tragedies typified by Webster's Duchess of Malfi. It ends amid shreds of a surly march, the beauty of Beatrice and victory or glory in slaughter? You can hear the Fanfare from The Cenci on Decca LP 430 369-2 1975 played by the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble. It was reissued on CD as part of a 2CD 20th Century Album in 2002 on Decca 470501. Shelley’s bloody drama also attracted settings by Berthold Goldschmidt, Bernard van Dieren, Patrick Hadley and Nikolai Tcherepnin. Nor should we forget Ginastera’s opera, Beatrix Cenci which is akin in shock value to the reputedly equally full-frontal opera Bomarzo; the latter once recorded on 3 LPs by CBS – time for a reissue on CD.
The three pieces from the 1951 opera Turandot speak a different language. They derive from the first act of Brian’s Schiller-out-of-Gozzi opera and originate from episodes occurring in the first act. A faintly oriental tone hangs over them and a lot more discontinuity of line than in Kelly although the first piece ends by finding some very affirmative lyricism. The second piece is gruffly determined – a mood that Brian knew well. The Macdondald-arranged six movement Turandot Suite has less orientalism than in the three pieces. It starts with the jaunty-ungainly At the Court of Emperor Altoum. It’s mixed with Brian’s characteristic sour and ungainly heroism yet with a regal accent. The little Minuet is surprisingly pastoral with a lovely work for flute, harp and clarinet and cor anglais. The Entrance of Princes Turandot is faintly threatening and without heroism. The Nocturno is frankly superb - almost filmic and easier to approach as is the Minuet - a most craftsmanly piece of work. In the Divan is absurdist in the strutting manner of Prokofiev in The Love Of Three Oranges. The final March movement is gritty, gloomy and lugubrious as the marking suggests. It has a slightly Purcellian air and looks back to For Valour but with a lither and more economical orchestral vocabulary. It does not end with quite the sense of stamped-down affirmation we might have expected from a concert suite is all.
Accessible Brian authority Malcolm MacDonald provides the generously extensive and encyclopaedically rewarding booklet notes.
This is the second CD of a pair recorded for Toccata Classics by Garry Walker and the BBC Scottish Symphony. Volume One is TOCC0110 and is reviewed here at:-
Fascinating … sumptuously romantic … sometimes gawky.