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]
John Dowland’s Fancy [2.48]
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!
Em Marshall-Luck 

I just wish I could have something more positive to say.