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Havergal BRIAN (1876-1972)
Festal Dance (1908) [5:58]
Wine of Summer (Symphony No. 5) (1937) [19:39]
Symphony No. 19 in E minor (1961) [17:53]
Symphony No. 27 in C minor (1966-67) [19:46]
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
rec. 25 and 28 July 2014, RSNO Centre, Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow
English text included
DUTTON EPOCH CDLX 7314 [65:22]

The day when commercial recordings of all 32 symphonies by Havergal Brian are available is getting closer. Progress towards complete availability is enhanced greatly by this SACD, made with the support of the Havergal Brian Society. The disc includes no fewer than three première commercial recordings.

Wine of Summer is a most unusual work. Composer John Pickard contributes a very valuable booklet note: has he assumed the mantle of the late Malcolm MacDonald? In this he robustly defends Brian’s decision to call the work a symphony though I think that many listeners, like me, will not be surprised to learn that Brian originally sought the permission of Lord Alfred Douglas to set his poem as a solo cantata. Guided by John Pickard’s explanation of the work I came to be able to discern in particular thematic elements that act as what I might term the ‘symphonic glue’ of the score. Nonetheless, I found it hard to shake off the impression of a cantata. Perhaps that’s because the piece plays continuously and the solo voice is rarely silent for long.

It was interesting to come to this work soon after reviewing Brian’s epic opera, The Tigers. Some eight years separate the completion of the opera and the composition of Wine of Summer. Simply comparing the two scores – a dangerous thing to view just these two works in isolation, I know – it seems that Brian’s language and syntax had become more complex and even more contrapuntal. The vocal writing in Wine of Summer sounds more angular than a lot of what we hear in The Tigers and the line not only flirts with but also embraces atonality to a greater degree than seems the case in the opera. However, though the vocal line is more taxing than much of the writing in the opera – for the listener as well as for the performer – Brian confirms once again with this score that he was a significant composer for the vocal medium, not least in the way that he responds musically to words. The imagery of the poem is far from straightforward but it seems to me that what Brian captures and conveys with particular success is the tone of ecstasy in the lines, whenever it occurs. The cause of Brian’s music is assisted immeasurably by the involvement of Roderick Williams. I have a dim recollection of a broadcast performance many years ago by Brian Rayner Cook, though the recollection is not so strong that I can remember anything about the performance. I find it hard to believe, however, that that performance could have matched Williams’s achievement here. He’s known for his care for words and their meaning and that trait is in abundant evidence here. Dutton supply the words and one really needs them in order to digest the meaning as the poem evolves but one does not need them at all in order to be able to make out the words, which are sung with exemplary clarity. The vocal part ranges widely but Williams produces alluring tone evenly in all registers of his voice and his singing per se gives great pleasure.

As was the case with The Tigers the orchestral writing teems with detail and invention. Yet I had the impression that in this regard Brian had advanced in the period that intervened between the two scores. The orchestra provides a consistently fascinating accompaniment to the often-rapturous vocal part. More than that, in the episodes where the singer takes a rest the orchestra either comments on what has been sung previously or, more often, introduces and sets the mood for what is to follow. Two examples of the inventive scoring will suffice. At 8:14 the scoring includes repeated rippling flute figurations as the singer begins the passage “…and low and deep/From visionary groves…” Later, at 12:26, after a wistful cello solo, the soloist sings “And mellow with old loves that used to burn” and the mellowness is perfectly reflected in the accompaniment. Yet, in the twinkling of an eye Brian switches, aptly, to martial vein for the next line of text and those that immediately follow.

I can’t compare the present performance with any others but it seems to me that this Brabbins-led reading is full of authority and conviction. I believe that Brian’s symphony, the last one in which he included the human voice, has been well served here.

Symphony No. 19 is cast in three movements. The first is one of Brian’s marches but, unlike some, this is a cheerful one; the marchers have a twinkle in the eye. Not long after the march has begun, however, a meditative violin solo leads into the first of a number of attractive lyrical sections that interrupt the marching in this compressed movement – it lasts for just under five minutes. The slow movement accounts for nearly half the length of the symphony and much of the movement is given over to long, singing lines, especially for the strings. There are a couple of faster interjections, however, and the first of these (2:00 – 2:54) includes at its end a short passage scored for the unusual and ear-tickling combination of harp, timpani, euphonium and tuba; yet another example of Brian’s amazingly fertile imagination when it comes to matters of orchestration. Some of the music in this movement is uncompromising in tone, not least the powerful climax in the moments up to 7:02 but nonetheless there’s considerable beauty of utterance here. The short rondo finale contains some perky material. As John Pickard puts it, the movement is “full of sly humour and rhythmic tricks”. Brian achieves an emphatically positive conclusion.

Symphony No. 27 similarly has three movements. There’s an important part for the principal flute, especially in the first movement. Indeed, the flute dominates the short Lento introduction. Then timpani launch the bracing, vigorous Allegro giocoso e marcato sempre section. Along the way there’s a pause for a quasi-cadenza for the flute before an extended passage of sturdy, energetic music for the full orchestra. This section teems with activity and the percussion has a prominent role in the proceedings, not least the side drum. There’s a mysterious ending which is surprisingly truncated. The slow movement is most attractive. There’s a profusion of singing lines, which should act as a reproach to those who say that Brian – and especially late Brian – is terse and gruff in character. The conclusion of the movement is so coloured in the orchestration that, as John Pickard observes, there’s “an unearthly glow.” The music seems destined to end on a quiet sustained chord – and would do so in the hands of many a composer – but Brian is, as ever, his own man and denies the listener that “easy” resolution. I admit that I find the finale hard to fathom. A variety of ideas and moods are tossed around in a short space of time - less than seven minutes - but I don’t really “get” what’s going on; the fault is mine and I need to get further to grips with the piece, I’m sure. At 5:44, after a mighty climax that flute returns over a soft drum roll to usher in a brief re-visitation of the end of the first movement. It’s in this fashion that Brian draws the symphony to a close.

The one piece on the programme that is not new to disc is the early Festal Dance. It is believed that this piece was originally the finale of a four-movement Fantastic Symphony conceived by Brian as a substantial elaboration on Three Blind Mice. Certainly a melodic fragment from that nursery rhyme is much in evidence in Festal Dance. I can’t better John Pickard’s description of it: “A joyously quirky, dazzlingly scored showstopper.” It’s great fun and that’s how it comes across in this performance. It’s been recorded at least once before, by Adrian Leaper and the RTE Symphony Orchestra in 1992 (review). I wouldn’t care to choose between the two performances; both have plenty of gaiety and dash. One slight point in Leaper’s favour is that his recording is split into two tracks, the second of which begins at the start of the rather novel fugal section. On the other hand, a more important consideration is that Brabbins benefits from a superior recording.

This is a disc which will be self-recommending to all Brian enthusiasts. So far as I can judge – all but one of the pieces were new to me – the performances are excellent. The playing is spirited and Brabbins, who already has impressive Brian credentials as an interpreter of the Gothic (review) ensures that the listener’s ear is constantly intrigued and diverted by the detail of Brian’s imaginative and original scoring. The recorded sound is first class as are John Pickard’s notes. All concerned in the making of this disc deserve congratulations for putting these score before the public, not least the Havergal Brian Society. Without their generous financial backing this project might not have come to fruition. Their money has been very well spent.

John Quinn


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