Havergal BRIAN (1876-1972)
The First Commercial Recordings
Symphony No.10* [18:07]; Symphony No.21 [29:08]; Symphony No.22 (Symphonia Brevis)** [9:10]; Psalm 23** [15:47]; English Suite No.5 (Rustic Scenes) [22:28]
Paul Taylor (tenor); Brighton Festival Chorus (Psalm 23).
Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra/James Loughran*, Laszlo Heltay**, Eric Pinkett
rec. 18-19 July 1972 and June 1974, De Montfort Hall, Leicester; Hove Town Hall, 10 April 1974.
HERITAGE HTGCD 256/7 [47:15 + 47:25]
This Heritage release, due to be launched in September, restores to the catalogue the first commercial recordings ever made of Havergal Brian’s music. For its historic significance alone this 2 CD set deserves a warm welcome. Symphonies 10 and 21 were recorded by Unicorn in 1972 and the coupling was available on vinyl (RHS313) and then briefly on a rather dry sounding CD reissue (UKCD2027) some years later. The works on the second CD were recorded by CBS in 1974 but have not been reissued since the original LP release in 1975 (CBS Classics 61612). The Heritage audio engineers have used the original masters as a starting point to produce this reissue.
I urge potential listeners not to be put off by the fact that the musicians involved are amateurs. “Schools orchestra” - the very term can send a shiver down the spine. It conjures up thin, painful strings and crude, out of tune playing. Well, to put that concern quickly to bed, the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra made commercial LPs for the Pye and Argo labels under the direction of Tippett, Bliss and Previn a few years before these Brian sessions took place. In the 1970s the orchestra’s patron and regular conductor, Sir Michael Tippett, compared it favourably to the National Youth Orchestra. Despite occasional lapses of intonation and a few bars where the youngsters are stretched close to their limits their playing is really quite remarkable in terms of its musicality, technical assurance and poise.
As far as repertoire is concerned I can think of no better introduction to the varied sound-world of Havergal Brian than the music that is on offer here. We have two short but magnificent symphonies (10 and 22), an attractive choral work and a quirkily original orchestral suite. Thrown in for good measure is the only currently available recording of the very approachable Symphony No.21.
Many sceptics have an entrenched view of Brian as being a self-taught amateur, big on ideas but small on content and ability. He’s the man who produced music with so many lines of confusing counterpoint that all you end up hearing is an opaque, grey, orchestral mush. He also specialised in composing massive, impracticable scores with the occasional kitchen sink thrown in for good measure. Well, some of these observations may contain elements of truth but none of them apply to any of the works featured here. I don’t sit in the camp that claims that Brian is a great composer but I object to him being dismissed out of hand because of unfounded misconceptions and generalisations. His huge output was admittedly inconsistent but at his best he has something to say and he’s worth hearing. He’s been treated rather shoddily over the years by the musical establishment - whoever they may be - and he deserves more respect and credit for his achievements. There’s some fabulous, uplifting music to be heard on this Heritage set. Be warned - some of it can become addictive!
Symphony No.10 is permanently engraved on my mind and has been since encountering it on the original Unicorn LP. It opens with a gripping march and fragments of this opening theme form the basis of everything else that follows. The music is often meditative in nature but there’s always an underlying menace about it. There are passages of utter stillness that catch the ear. One such passage - great pianissimo playing from the orchestra - eventually erupts into a furious storm which then quickly subsides. The changes of mood and pace are what make this symphony so special. A violin solo takes us into the world of English pastoral music but Brian then engulfs the mood of serenity and calm with one final cataclysmic upheaval before the music quietens down again. The composer then delivers the most astonishing and hair-raising of endings: the violin returns, the mood becomes dark, lonely and introspective and the work finishes with a question mark hanging over it. This is a tremendous symphony and the inspired performance is as good as you could reasonably expect from a youth orchestra. Some of the playing is jaw-dropping in its brilliance. The sense of danger and discovery is tangible. Martyn Brabbins has recently recorded the 10th for Dutton but despite the higher level of orchestral execution his version seems to lack the magic and atmosphere conjured up by Loughran in Leicester. Incidentally, you can sample the 10th symphony and watch extracts from the LSSO recording session on Youtube.
Brian is accused of composing mammoth, overblown works but this can be brushed aside by listening to Symphony No.22, running as it does for just over 9 minutes. Written in 1964/65 when he was in his 80s, the general mood is one of menace and impending doom. Had it been written in the late 1930s it could be argued that it was the composer’s reaction to the imminent outbreak of war. The march rhythms, so typical of Brian, conjure up visions of the military and the gathering of dark clouds. Moments of repose are regularly brought crashing down and the ending is magical - it’s another question mark “what next?” The work has less immediate appeal than the 10th but it’s one of those pieces that can quickly get under your skin. An awful lot happens in its highly compressed time-span. Heltay’s performance is superb and the LSSO rises to the challenge. The recent Naxos version by Alexander Walker has superior orchestral playing but there’s not much in it and the LSSO is in no way totally outclassed. Walker also adds an irritating pause between the two movements thus destroying the continuity of the symphony and he totally misses the mood of foreboding at the very end. Laszlo Heltay generates more atmosphere and bite and in truth the thinner string tone of the LSSO allows the listener to hear more inner detail compared to the luxuriant, smooth sounds generated by the Russian forces on Naxos. The LSSO versions of 10 and 22 are still arguably the ones to go for.
Symphony No.21 is good natured and pastoral in mood. It’s less angry than many of Brian’s pieces and there’s something very genial about it. The heart of the symphony is the beautiful slow movement which in turns can be elegiac and then grave with sudden outbursts of brass sonorities underpinning the string-laden texture. This music is a nod in the direction of Vaughan Williams and the string section copes very well with the exposed, legato writing it is asked to deliver. The ensuing scherzo is mercurial and playful, allowing the orchestra to display its virtuoso capabilities to the full with its scampering woodwinds and imposing horns. The finale has passages of Brianesque grimness and anti-romanticism about it but there are also some light, melodious interludes; lovely work by the flautist. The momentary lapse in string ensemble at the very beginning should have been given a retake but no matter - Eric Pinkett’s realisation of the work is well worth hearing. Towards the end he propels the music forward and in his hands the symphony comes to a glowing, optimistic close.
The orchestra has a whale of a time in the English Suite No.5. This is almost light music but not quite. Brian continually adds some quite bizarre twists and turns into the fabric and the music isn’t always as straight forward as it would appear to be from the titles he has given to the four movements. The opening Trotting to Market bounces along quite nicely but then we keep encountering pauses and gear changes. Do the horses keep stopping for a break or do the cart wheels keep falling off? Either way it’s very congenial, as is the closing movement, Village Revels, with its high spirits, attractive folk dance tune and blazing final bars. The two central movements are the most satisfying and original. The Restless Stream is quite remarkable. Written for woodwind and percussion - with horns included at the very end - the music bubbles away but there is something quite uncomfortable and sinister lurking underneath the surface. This short intermezzo could have been penned by Nielsen in one of his stranger moods. The highlight of the suite is the stunning Reverie scored for strings alone. Running for the best part of 10 minutes this dark elegy is English to the core but it treads a different path to the likes of Vaughan Williams and Elgar. This is Brian at his most inspired. This is intensely grave and searchingly tragic music, expertly scored and beautifully played by the LSSO string section.
Brian’s Psalm 23 has its foundations firmly rooted in the English choral tradition. Despite being tuneful, confident and uplifting the work seems to be missing all the usual Brian fingerprints of originality. It’s structurally sound and enjoyable to listen to but it’s hard to make any huge claims for it. The Brighton Festival Chorus and tenor soloist Paul Taylor sing confidently throughout but the orchestra, by its own superlative standards, sounds slightly less secure than usual. Some entries are tentative and the flute and oboe intonation could have been improved. Maybe the players didn’t quite have the notes under their fingers. However, it’s still a good performance. Heltay captures the spirit of the work and the orchestra and choir clearly understand and enjoy its idiom.
So now to the quality of the CD transfers. The Unicorn 10/21 coupling taped at De Montfort Hall was always a good recording on vinyl but rather less appealing when it was reissued on CD. The Heritage transfer is excellent with a natural balance, clarity, warmth and good clean bass. The off stage trumpet and horn solos both sound as if they come from another world and all the climaxes have tremendous presence and bite. This is analogue sound at its finest. The CBS LP was never very easy to enjoy with its scrawny, fizzy strings and over-bright percussion. The Heritage transfer is a miraculous improvement. Symphony 22 and Psalm 23, although recorded in Hove Town Hall, sound very similar in quality to the Unicorn De Montfort Hall sessions. The chorus in Psalm 23 is clean and imposing with wonderfully clear diction. The ruinous end of side distortion encountered on the LP is absent, thus giving the climaxes plenty of air. The engineering in English Suite No.5, supervised by a different producer, is more “Phase Four” in its approach. Everything is very closely recorded and there are a few extraneous noises to be heard (bow taps and the like). However, there’s no doubting the physical impact of the music making - glorious horns, highly detailed woodwind and clear percussion. The string tone is bright and sweet and the cellos and basses are imposingly realistic.
In summary, this set could convert some new listeners to Brian’s music. The playing is never less than good and it is often brilliant. This should be in the collection of anyone even remotely interested in British music. Bravo.
An ideal introduction to Havergal Brian’s art.
The LSSO Havergal Brian recordings by John Whitmore
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