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Havergal BRIAN (1876-1972)
Prelude and Fugue in C minor (1924) [8.27]
Double Fugue in E flat (1924) [15.34]
March from Turandot (1951) [5.45]
Prelude ‘John Dowland’s Fancy’ (1934) [3.12]
Four Miniatures (1918-20) [9.47]
Prelude and Fugue in D (1924) [9.20]
Three Illuminations (1916)* [5.44]
Peter Hill (piano)
*Christopher Kay (narration)
rec. information not given but originally issued on LP in February 1981
CAMEO CLASSICS CC9016CD [59.03]

The complete piano music of Havergal Brian fits conveniently onto one disc, and this Cameo reissue of an LP was the first recording to do this. There is a later CD from Raymond Clarke issued in 1998, but the contents there are rather different although the main works featured remain the same. The Clarke disc includes some vocal items — in the shape of the original versions of songs transcribed for piano in the Four Miniatures — but here we are given purely the piano works with a spoken narration in the satirical Three Illuminations. We also hear Brian’s transcription of the Funeral March from his opera Turandot, which is missing from the Clarke collection.
 
The three most substantial works on this CD are the contrapuntal studies written in 1924 while Brian was working on his Gothic Symphony. In the Prelude and Fugue in C minor the opening Prelude has a positively Vaughan Williams feel with its juxtapositions of block chords. The following Fugue is less remarkable, with its contrapuntal development somewhat over-strenuous in its striving after effect even in its opening bars (as at track 1, 5.01). The Double Fugue is more lightweight in its general atmosphere, although the contrapuntal difficulties with which the pianist is confronted are even more strenuous. The Prelude and Fugue in D minor/major is more impressive still. Oddly enough there is more contrapuntal technique in these exercises than in the Gothic Symphony itself.
 
The jaunty March from Brian’s late opera Turandot is the most recent piece on this disc by a considerable margin. Although we now have a recording of the orchestral version of the march it is good to hear it again in the composer’s piano transcription which I recall from its first broadcast performance by Ronald Stevenson back in 1973. Oddly enough the booklet note by Harold Truscott does not mention this item at all — was its inclusion an afterthought? Truscott refers to John Dowland’s Fancy as Brian’s last work for piano, a single movement from an abandoned suite. Like the earlier contrapuntal exercises it is a somewhat grandiose piece, with smashing chordal treatment of the Dowland melody, but it does sound more naturally pianistic.
 
The two early sets of miniatures show Brian in the quirkily humorous vein familiar from his opera The Tigers, pieces that are grotesque in the sense that they continually confound the listener’s expectations. Two of the Four miniatures are straightforward transcriptions of the accompaniments from the Blake songs settings The Land of Dreams and The Birds with the vocal lines omitted. The suggestion for this treatment originated with Brian’s publishers but they sound inevitably here as though something is missing. One should I suppose be grateful that Brian did not mete out the same treatment to another 1919 Blake setting, The defiled sanctuary, which is one of his greatest songs. The Three Illuminations are even more odd. Christopher Kay’s delivery of the narrations which Brian inserted into the score is rather more natural than Tessa Spong’s on the Clarke disc, although we are not given the texts here. The words are unfortunately not free from the accusation of tweeness – as indeed are elements in Brian’s own libretto for The Tigers – which make the humour of the music sound irretrievably dated. Clarke’s disc also provided versions of these pieces without narration, which does helps to improve matters, although the music then sounds somewhat unmotivated. In the last resort, though, what can one possibly do with lines like “The naughty boy hits her with his cap” or “Cold too it is” — the latter sounding like an anticipation of Yoda from Star Wars?
 
Oddly enough the Havergal Brian Society’s website listing of this Hill recording credits a second pianist in the Double Fugue in the shape of Douglas Young, although there is no mention of any additional player on this reissue. In an article written by Peter Hill on the same website he refers to the sheer impracticability of Brian’s writing in a number of places with particular reference to the Double Fugue, so it appears that a second player might indeed have been involved. This CD reissue does not even furnish details of the original recording location or date. The valuable and informative Havergal Brian website does make mention of a performance of the two Preludes and Fugues by Peter Hill on BBC Radio 3 broadcast on 13 April 1981, which may well be the source of at least some of these recordings.
 
With regard to the rival Raymond Clarke disc, reviewers of that CD made some complaints about the sense of overload evident in places in his playing. This is an accusation that I can well understand although the blame could well be laid to the charge of Brian’s music itself rather than Clarke’s technique. For the same reason one might criticise Hill’s evident difficulties with some of the more awkward writing in the contrapuntal exercises here. In fact, the recorded sound is excellent and the playing is always poised and responsive. Those who have already purchased the admirable Clarke collection will be well satisfied with it; but for those who have yet to make the acquaintance Brian’s piano music, this new and comprehensive reissue may be recommended even more enthusiastically. One’s only criticism might be that individual movements are not separately tracked.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey
 
I carried out the initial LP transfer of this Havergal Brian LP for Cameo Classics. All the music on the new CD release is taken from this LP - GOCLP 9016(D). I can confirm that Douglas Young is credited on the record sleeve. The two pianists were co-founders of the ensemble Dreamtiger along with cellist Rohan de Saram, hence their connection. Recording information is as follows: Bosendorfer Imperial Concert Grand piano in the Concert Hall of the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester on 16-17th February 1981. The Three Illuminations were recorded on a Steinway on 15th February 1981.I hope this is helpful.

John Whitmore


Experience Classicsonline