Havergal Brian’s songs haven’t had the attention
on disc that they deserve. Concentration has largely focused,
for obvious reasons, on his significant symphonic canvass of
works led by the you-know-what symphony. Unlike The Gothic
the songs are on a wholly reduced scale, nakedly employing voice
and piano. They reveal another Brian, sometimes not a very predictable
or even recognisable Brian.
This recital by Mark Stone and pianist Sholto Kynoch makes a
good case for this body of work to be taken seriously. They
make a most effective team, enjoying the melancholy moments
as much as those clearly predicated on a fully orchestral view
of the keyboard writing. Since the pieces span a quarter of
a century of Brian’s compositional life we can trace his
development with a degree of clarity. There is the early tristesse
of Sorrow song or the eager intensity of The message
with its fizzing textual scorn and hints of Elgar.
In response to a previous, unsympathetic review of this disc,
a contributor to this site’s message board suggested that
listeners acquaint themselves with the old recording of some
Brian songs made by Brian Rayner Cook and pianist Roger Vignoles
[Toccata TOCC0005]. I don’t have the CD transfer but I
do have the LP from which it derives, recorded for Auracle (AUC1003).
As suggested, I did listen. What I hear is a contrast of interpretations,
as one might have predicted, where the same songs are covered.
To take these early songs first: in Sorrow song Stone
is neither as full toned nor quite a passionate as Rayner Cook.
But he is a touch more conversational. In The message
Rayner Cook and Vignoles take a somewhat more relaxed tempo
with more explicit rubato. Arguably, they find more scorn, though
there’s less headlong rush. Both catch the intensity and
anguish of The soul of steel very well and I wouldn’t
care to adjudicate between them. In Since love is dead
Stone is quicker, more direct, whilst Rayner Cook is more thoughtfully
paced; once again both convince on their own terms. So it goes.
But I would say that I prefer Rayner Cook’s rhythmic zest
and uplift in When icicles hang by the wall: Stone strikes
me as a touch bluff here. There’s also a touch less rigidity
and more affection in the older pairing’s phrasing in
Take, O, take those lips away. Here I’d certainly
prefer Rayner Cook and Vignoles.
Little Sleeper Op. 13a is a hypnotic little prayer, John
Dowland’s Fancy a solo piano piece full of Brianesque
drollery. The Three Unison Songs show us Brian’s
lighter side - and he did have a lighter side - whilst When
I lie ill gives us a solid march tempo.
We also have the bonus of the Legend, for violin and
piano played by Jonathan Stone and Kynoch.
The booklet has been beautifully laid out and designed. Good
to have full texts on such attractive paper too and in such
a well judged font though it is a little undersized. Upping
the point size would bring better clarity, especially as the
poetry is set in italics.
Finally, what should you do if you have the Toccata and are
puzzled by this new disc? Should you get it for the songs that
are new to disc? If you are sympathetic to Brian, then I’d
say yes, most certainly. I happen to prefer the Rayner Cook/Vignoles
interpretations on the whole, for tonal, technical and interpretative
reasons, but I don’t always prefer them, and not really
by so very much. I think this exploratory first disc in the
Brian series is well worth a listen.
see also review by Em