Havergal BRIAN (1876-1972)
The Complete Songbook Vol.1
Three Songs for Contralto or Baritone Op. 6 (Sorrow song [3.57] The message
[2.01] Farewell [5.29])
Little Sleeper Op. 13a [5.29]
Three Contemporary Songs (A faery song Op. 13c [2.06] The soul of steel [4.30]
Since love is dead [2.34])
Legend for violin and piano [6.52]
Three Elizabethan songs (When icicles hang by the wall [2.11] Care-charmer sleep
[4/21] Take, O, take those lips away [1.05])
Three Unison Songs: he mountain and the squirrel [1.24] The lost doll [1.24]
What does little birdie say [1.25])
Three Illuminations (The boys and the pastille [1.46] The butterfly's waltz
[1.24] Venus and a bobby [2.57])
Soliloquy Upon a Dead Child Op.l3a [5.29]
Three Songs for tenor Op.l3b (Day and night [5.02] When I lie ill [3.08] If
I could speak [2.38])
Mark Stone (baritone), Jonathan Stone (violin), Sholto Kynoch (piano)
rec. 25-26 August 2011, Potton Hall, Suffolk. DDD
STONE RECORDS 5060192780154 [68.40]
No doubt the numerous Havergal Brian fans will warmly welcome this disc, yet
my enthusiasm was regrettably tempered by the performances and, in some cases,
works, which I found to be rather below par.
I rather felt, from the outset, that Mark Stone’s vocal technique leaves
something to be desired - his tone comes across as forced in forte sections,
and has a tendency to stray to the flatwards side of the note. His vowels are
often rather distorted, and the enunciation is not particularly clear. On occasion,
I found the tone quality, manner and delivery inappropriate for the song: such
as in The Message, setting an anguished poem by John Donne, which simply
sounds jaunty, or in When Icicles Hang by the Wall, for which song his
voice is too heavy; too leaden and earthbound. I lamented the lack of variety
of tone-colour. Stone also struggles for the lower notes (as in The soul
of Steel), and doesn’t appear to have the support needed for high
notes in piano sections - this resulting in a thin tone and poor intonation.
Without wishing to criticise too astringently, one other very notable problem
is that when singing forte, the degree of the attack of the hard consonants
is out of proportion with the volume of the preceding or following vowel sound,
and this produces a sound that is rather harsh and unpleasant on the ear.
Pianist Sholto Kynoch generally accompanies with sensitivity, although I found
myself feeling for the poor piano at times, which was rather heavily thumped
- as in John Dowland’s Fancy. Nor, I’m afraid, was I particularly
impressed by violinist Jonathan Stone, who performs the Legend for violin
and piano - the consistently ‘passed’ bow during slurring is to
the detriment of the lyricism of the line, and the opening lacked security.
Stone’s habit of delaying the start of the vibrato on long notes is also
one that soon rankles. I’m sorry to say that I can’t even praise
the recorded sound - which is rather poor, surprisingly so, given that the recording
location is the usually excellent Potton Hall.
The pieces themselves - for this isn’t just a songbook - it contains piano
works and, as previously mentioned, a work for violin and piano - are a rather
mixed bunch. I found John Dowland’s Fancy slightly banal despite
the fact that it was composed at the suggestion of Havergal Brian’s friend
and fellow composer, Granville Bantock. I couldn’t understand the Three
Illuminations at all: musical realisations of three completely pointless
and nonsensical little stories, with no direction or apparent meaning. We hear
the influence of Finzi in songs such as The soul of Steel but Havergal
Brian simply doesn’t have the mastery of that great composer, and the
gap in ability is glaringly detrimental to Brian.
Other oddities include an incorrect verse-form citation in the notes; a disproportionately
long silence at the end of Soliloquy Upon a Dead Child; the inclusion
of Three Songs for Tenor (given that Stone is a baritone), and the inclusion
of both Little Sleeper and Soliloquy Upon a Dead Child - two different
texts with the same or very similar settings, of which Brian himself urged the
performance of the former version only, disparaging the second poem.
On the plus side, the disc is beautifully produced, with pleasingly spacious
layout, photographs and so on. I just wish I could have something more positive
to say about the other elements of it!
I just wish I could have something more positive to say.