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 Havergal BRIAN (1876-1972)
The Tigers - Burlesque opera in a prologue and three acts (1917-29) [161:45]
Teresa Cahill (soprano); Alison Hargan (soprano); Marilyn Hill-Smith (soprano); Ameral Gunson (mezzo); Ann Marie Owens (contralto); Paul Crook (tenor); Harry Nicoll (tenor); John Winfield (tenor); Kenneth Woollam (tenor); Ian Caddy (baritone); Malcolm Donnelly (baritone); Henry Herford (baritone); Alan Opie (baritone); Alan Watt (baritone); Norman Welsby (baritone); Richard Angas (bass-baritone); Eric Shilling (bass–baritone); Dennis Wicks (bass)
BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Lionel Friend
rec. 3-8 January 1983, BBC Maida Vale Studios. Broadcast on BBC Radio3, 3 May 1983
English libretto included
TESTAMENT SBT3 1496 [3 CDs: 49:14 + 54:13 + 58:18]

This outstanding release preserves what I believe to be the only complete performance that has ever been given of Brian’s first opera, The Tigers. He wrote five operas in all – the remaining four were composed between 1949 and 1957 – and to the best of my knowledge not one of them has ever been staged. In his four later operas the libretti were fashioned/adapted from existing works of literature by Brian but he wrote the libretto for The Tigers himself from scratch.

Testament, working in association with the Havergal Brian Society, has really gone to town on this release. At the heart of the copious documentation is an extensive and fascinating essay about the opera by the Brian expert, the late Malcolm (or Calum) MacDonald (1948-2014) to whose memory this release is very fittingly dedicated. I readily acknowledge that I have drawn on the wisdom and scholarship that informs his essay for the background information in this review.

The opera was composed in two spells, between 1917 and 1919 and then between 1927 and 1929. The work has never been staged. Its cause was not helped by the fact that although a vocal score was published by a German firm in 1932 the manuscript full score, which runs to three volumes, was lost for many years and only came to light in 1977. Some of the music was heard, however, because Brian extracted some sections of the opera and fashioned them into self-contained orchestral works. A pioneering recording of the five Symphonic Movements – which play for some 55 minutes – was released in 1981 (review). One of the movements, Symphonic Variations on ‘Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?’ has also been recorded separately (review). These two recordings are not, I think, superseded by the recording of the complete opera; rather, they constitute a valuable introduction to the full work and they complement the opera.

Brian volunteered for the army almost immediately war was declared in 1914 and he joined the Honourable Artillery Company. His unit was not sent to France but instead Brian experienced some two years of training and Home Front duties before being medically discharged in 1915 due to flat feet. During his relatively brief army career he became singularly unimpressed by the way in which the army was run, as is clear from a number of extracts from his contemporary letters which are reproduced in the booklet. On his discharge he wrote to Sir Granville Bantock that he had ‘left off playing at soldiers’. Eventually he poured into the libretto of The Tigers all his cynicism about the British Army and, especially, its command structure – the donkeys leading the lions.

Much of the work of composition and, I presume, all the work on the libretto was done in the period 1917-19. Then Brian laid the work aside and focused on other projects, not the least of which was the composition of the ‘Gothic’ Symphony (review review review). In 1918 he extracted a goodly amount of music from the Prologue and orchestrated it into a purely orchestral work, the Symphonic Variations on ‘Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?’ Later, in 1921-2, he took more music from the score and orchestrated all of this to form the other Symphonic Dances: Shadow Dance (Act III, scene 3); Gargoyles and Lacryma (Entr’actes before Act III); Green Pastures (Act II, scene 4); and Wild Horsemen (Prologue, scene 2). The full score was complete by 1929 but various hoped-for performances came to nothing. All this history is related in absorbing detail by Malcom MacDonald.

The opera wasn’t initially going to be called The Tigers. The initial title was The Grotesques and that was only changed to The Tigers, it seems, in 1931. The Tigers is the name – or, more correctly, the nickname - of the regiment that Brian depicts in the score. At first it appears he thought of calling the regiment The Hornets but he changed his mind and The Hornets became the rival regiment against which The Tigers fight a mock battle, as a training exercise, in Act II. In fact, although Brian only learned this in 1919, there was a British army regiment that was known popularly as ‘The Tigers’: this was the Royal Leicestershire Regiment.

It’s important to know when The Tigers was written in order to place it within the composer’s development. For some people Brian’s later music, especially that astonishing set of twenty often-compact symphonies that he penned in the last 14 years of his life, can seem terse, gruff and hard to approach. That’s often how they’ve come across to me, certainly at an initial hearing. The Tigers is a very different proposition. The score is often complex and far from easy at times but it’s definitely approachable. Indeed, it’s not just a satire, it’s essentially a comic opera. Furthermore, the whole work is full of examples of Brian’s unique and imaginative use of a large, colourful orchestra. I didn’t know what to expect since my prior knowledge of The Tigers, such as it was, was limited to the orchestral extractions that I’ve already mentioned. I found the opera in toto to be a colourful, rich and accessible score.

Having set out just a little of the background to the opera let’s consider the work itself. The opera is cast in a Prologue and three Acts. Oddly, the Prologue, which is divided into two scenes, plays for some 36 minutes whereas Act I, also in two scenes, lasts for slightly less than thirteen minutes. All of that music is contained on the first CD with the other two Acts occupying one disc each.

The Prologue takes place on Hampstead Heath during the August Bank Holiday Carnival and during the first scene a man arrives and puts up a poster announcing the declaration of war and that all men aged under 75 are required for service. Much of the music is good-humoured and there’s a great deal of musical bustle. There are several amazingly complex ensembles – one wonders how it could all have been distilled into a vocal score – and some of the action seems almost surreal, not least the episode where a man arrives astride an elephant! Brian’s invention is amazing yet at times there’s almost too great a profusion of detail – that seems to be the case in the last few moments of Scene 1 (CD1, tracks 6-7). However, amid all the chaos and frivolity Brian implicitly makes one significant point: there was a cheerful atmosphere among many of the British people at the start of the war. It was widely perceived as a great adventure; only later did the grim reality set in.

In the second scene of the Prologue we are still at the carnival but now it’s evening. The hobby horses are depicted in an orchestral episode which Brian extracted from the full score as Wild Horsemen. The music of Wild Horsemen is vivid and highly imaginative. It doesn’t seem to me that Brian is depicting gay, carefree hobby horses; there’s a darkness to the music that at times is more suggestive of the steeds that bear the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The music is wild and vividly scored for the large orchestra. The police eventually disperse the crowd, sending them home – there are several instances in the opera where policemen are seen acting officiously – and then a love scene takes place between Columbine and her admirer, Pantalon. This is Brian’s first real opportunity for detailed characterisation; Alison Hargan and Henry Nicholl do well, characterising believably. Pantalon is ardent while Columbine is hesitant but in the end she succumbs and agrees to run away with him.

The short First Act sees The Tigers at the railway station, departing for their training camp. There’s more teeming ensemble writing here, with the chorus divided into three separate SATB ensembles. At one point, apparently, there are no less than 21 separate vocal parts in play. The writing is virtuosic. They receive a pompous address from their elderly Colonel, Sir John Stout. He describes himself much later in the opera as sixty-six years old and, in civilian life, a brewer – presumably the owner of a brewery. In an opera that contains some 30 individual roles it is Stout whose character is most fully fleshed out. Malcolm Donnelly sings extremely well and offers a rich portrayal of the orotund elderly colonel here and elsewhere in the opera.

At the start of Act II The Tigers are in camp. It’s night time and we see Stout in his tent, sleeping restlessly. In his dreams he’s visited by the apparitions of three warriors of old: a Red Indian, Alexander the Great and Napoleon. Apparently Brian had a great fascination with some of the great generals of history. The fourth apparition is Lady Stout. This imaginative scene is very well done. The recording seems to put a bit of resonance onto the voices of the apparitions and that adds a nice touch. Alison Hargan is Lady Stout, concerned for her husband but expressing this in a nagging way. Sir John clearly fears the way in which she keeps him up to the mark – he’s probably had a lifetime’s experience! I was intrigued to hear in the prelude to this scene a motif which is very reminiscent of the Storm music in Britten’s Peter Grimes; this must be a sheer coincidence.

The remainder of the Act is concerned with the mock battle between The Tigers and The Hornets. Fortified – if that’s the right word – by another rallying address from their colonel, The Tigers march off. There follows a scene in which a Bishop and some ladies view the mock battle from a safe distance. Paul Crook excels as the sanctimonious bishop. In this passage Brian satirises the moral rectitude of some churchmen of the time in a merciless way. At the end of this episode Stout encounters for the first time Mrs Pamela Freebody. In Teresa Cahill’s entertaining portrayal Pamela comes across as a voluptuous lady of a certain age, though she’s quite a bit younger that Stout. She’s clearly set her cap at the colonel. The battle is a disaster: The Tigers show no appetite for the fight and far more of an appetite for a watching group of girl haymakers with whom a group of the soldiers eventually run off. Brian uses an interesting device here. The battle itself is in the background while the girls are in the foreground, commentating on it. In the closing scene of the Act the regiment returns to the parade ground; the group who ran away with the girls are under arrest. Having expressed his disappointment at the outcome, Stout shows abysmal leadership by taking no action to improve the military prowess of his men beyond delivering another platitudinous speech.

So far the plot has hung together quite well but in the final Act I wonder if Brian doesn’t rather lose his way dramatically, even if the music remains compelling. Before the Act proper gets under way there are two Entr’actes, Gargoyles and Lacryma, which between them play for some twenty minutes. Malcolm MacDonald believes that these may represent the dreams of policemen sleeping in the police station where the action of Scene 1 will take place. The Entr’actes are ballets depicting the nocturnal activities of the statues on the twin towers of a Gothic cathedral. The Gargoyles are on the first tower. The second tower is populated by weeping angels and the Virgin. In Gargoyles these weird creatures go off on their nocturnal march. The music is highly imaginative and vividly scored; in this respect Brian seems to me to be the twentieth-century equivalent of Berlioz. The scoring is amazingly inventive and more than once I was put in mind of the scherzo of the ‘Gothic’ – and not just through the use of the xylophone. Lacryma is equally intriguing. This is fantastical music with more than a touch of mystery about it. Yet for all the fascination of these episodes I do wonder whether, in the context of the mis en scène they are a bit excessive in length: the action is held up for quite a long time.

Act III takes place at night. Scene 1 depicts a farcical episode in which a telephone call is received at the police station and the Sergeant takes down a message: 45 Zeppelins are on their way to carry out a raid; as a consequence, all lights are to be extinguished within 50 miles of the coast; and it’s The Tiger’s birthday. He then rouses the sleeping members of the constabulary and sends them off around the town to carry out various tasks associated with the message. Shortly afterwards Sir John Stout and Mrs Freebody meet by a bridge over a river near the base of The Tigers. A love scene ensues but it’s rather a strange one because neither is in the first flush of youth. Stout is torn between his perception of his duty – to the regiment, not to Lady Stout – and his desire to succumb to Pamela’s charms. In the end he just about manages to satisfy both impulses.

In the penultimate scene of the opera two regimental cooks conspire to ring the bells in the bell-tower of the regiment’s headquarters as a practical joke. Brian later made this entire scene into a purely orchestral score as Shadow Dance. In the final scene there’s general pandemonium as the regiment, roused from sleep by the bells, musters in nightwear. Eventually it becomes clear that the Sergeant misheard the telephone message: the Zeppelins may be on their way – that’s not made clear – but the lights were to be extinguished only fifteen miles from the coast; and it’s the Kaiser’s birthday. Everyone disperses back to bed leaving only Stout and Mrs Freebody on stage. Their brief final exchange hints that their liaison will develop. This Act doesn’t hang together as well as the rest of the opera and the ending, after the farce has subsided, seems a bit weak and perfunctory: maybe it would work better on stage.

Twenty soloists were involved in this performance but because there are some thirty individual roles a fair degree of multi-tasking was required and most singers took two or more parts – up to five in some cases. Malcolm Donnelly had enough on his plate with the substantial role of Sir John Stout. In fact, there isn’t a weak link among the cast. Not only do all the singers perform very well but also they enter into the spirit of Brian’s satire wholeheartedly. The chorus work is undertaken by the BBC Singers, whose ranks were somewhat augmented for the occasion, I suspect. Coached by Simon Joly, they make an excellent contribution; the crowd scenes are lively and colourful. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was an ideal ensemble for this project, expert as they always have been at assimilating unfamiliar music and putting it across with conviction. Brian always exhibited an astonishingly fertile imagination when it came to orchestration and this is a choice example. The BBCSO brings the score to life marvellously – as do the singers.

The entire project is directed with great assurance and a fine ear for detail by Lionel Friend. Five years later he went on to record Brian’s Third Symphony with the same orchestra for Hyperion (CDH55029) but so far as I know, apart from the Naxos disc of The Jolly Miller, Symphony 18 and Violin Concerto (8.557775 previously Marco Polo 8.223479 issued in 1993) he was not invited to make any further Brian recordings. That’s surprising because here he reveals himself as a conductor very much at home with Brian’s often-complex sound-world. It must have been a prodigious feat of musicianship to master this huge score, rehearse it thoroughly and then lead the recording sessions. His is a very great achievement.

The BBC recording was set down during ten recording sessions – and after goodness knows how many hours of prior rehearsal – in 1983. I’m tempted to say that only the BBC could have mounted such an undertaking and one wonders if the present-day BBC would be able and willing to do so. The BBC is frequently criticised – sometimes rightly, sometimes unfairly - for all sorts of things but this is an example of the sort of thing that it does which probably no other arts organisation in the world could match, let alone better.

A few things should be said about the way this recording has been presented. Firstly the sound is excellent. I imagine that the original BBC stereo analogue sound was already pretty good but Paul Baily has re-mastered it very successfully. The big ensembles are all reported with colour and impact while the quieter moments register very atmospherically. The balance between voices and orchestra is well-nigh ideal. The documentation is absolutely superb. I’ve already mentioned Malcolm MacDonald’s wonderful extended essay. He also provides a good synopsis of the plot. Testament have divided each Act into a number of tracks, which is enormously helpful, and these are signposted in the synopsis, which is also a boon. There are also short reminiscences from Elaine Padmore, the original producer, and from Lionel Friend, together with a most interesting essay ‘Uncaging The Tigers’ about how the BBC recording came to be made. This is by David J Brown, a leading light for many years in the Havergal Brian Society. Finally, the full libretto is included though this is only essential in the crowd scenes; when any individual character is singing the excellent diction of the cast renders the words clearly.

This is a release of great moment – and not just for admirers of Havergal Brian’s music. It fills out further our understanding of this remarkable composer. In these money-conscious times I find it hard to envisage a stage production of The Tigers, still less a second recording – at least not in my lifetime. However, whilst a staging would be a desirable event a second recording would be almost superfluous because it’s hard to imagine the achievement of this present recording could be matched, let alone surpassed. Reviewing this release and trying to do justice both to the work and to the performance has been one of the most challenging assignments I’ve had for MusicWeb International but it’s been an enthralling experience.

The Tigers is a rich, inventive and unique score. Testament, the Havergal Brian Society and the BBC are to be congratulated on making this magnificent recording generally available and for doing so with such style. This is surely one of the most important releases of 2015.

John Quinn

If you would like to read more about The Tigers then do have a look at the articles about the opera on the Havergal Brian Society website.