Havergal BRIAN (1876-1972)
The Tinker’s Wedding: Comedy Overture (1948) [6:40]
Violin Concerto in C major (1934-35) [36:35]
Symphony No. 13 in C major (1959) [16:04]
English Suite No. 4 Kindergarten (1921) [12:18]
Lorraine McAslan (violin)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
rec. 31 May-1 June 2012, RSNO Centre. Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow. DDD

This valuable collection presents an excellent variety of music by Havergal Brian.

The Tinker’s Wedding is a good example of Brian belying the reputation he acquired in some quarters for writing gruff, terse music. It’s a sparkling, inventive overture that put me in mind at times of the humour that’s often on display in The Tigers (review). As the late Malcolm MacDonald points out in his characteristically expert notes, Brian wrote the piece in the form of a scherzo. The scherzo material itself is full of what he terms ‘raffish, anarchic good humour’ but the trio is lighter and more relaxed. The trio is delightful while the overture as a whole is very entertaining. This is just the sort of work that ought to be heard more often, both for its own sake and, for those who don’t yet know Brian’s music, as an introduction to his art.

Malcolm MacDonald points out that in terms of Brian’s creativity the years 1948-1968 divide into two periods: 1948-1957 and 1958-1968. The Tinker’s Wedding is, if you will, the entry point to the first period while the second period begins with the Thirteenth Symphony. This symphony is worlds away from The Tinker’s Wedding. MacDonald describes it as one of the composer’s most enigmatic works and I must say I don’t find it easy to grasp. It’s cast in a single movement within which there is an introduction followed by three sections. I think it would have been helpful if these four divisions had been separately tracked. It’s easy enough to spot where the Introduction gives way to the first main section and the notes make it possible to spot the start of the third section but even Malcolm MacDonald admits that the transition between the first and second main sections is not clearly marked out.

The Introduction is very serious and full of deep sonorities. Once that is behind us much of the writing that follows is abrupt and turbulent. Almost out of nowhere, as it seems, comes a very striking passage for an unaccompanied clarinet (8:39 – 9:27). MacDonald compares this solo to ‘the dying soliloquy of a character who has previously had to suffer in silence’. The third section, which is introduced by a fanfare-like passage for brass (12:21), is quite short. That final section contains the most cheerful and optimistic music in the symphony; everything dances along in a very energetic fashion. Right at the end Brian draws the proceedings to a close with a brief, grandiose coda. Whereas The Tinker’s Wedding shows Brian at his most approachable here he is in much more knotty vein but the piece is fascinating.

Different again is the English Suite No 4. Don’t be misled by the title Kindergarten: this is not childish music; indeed, it’s pretty sophisticated. Once again Malcolm MacDonald illuminates the way forward for us, drawing a distinction between music for children and music ‘concerned from a more adult perspective with the world of childhood’. This Suite definitely falls into the second category. It consists of nine movements, all of them short. The longest, Ashanti Battle Song which forms the finale, comes in at just 2:23 in this performance and three of the movements play for less than one minute each. These are miniatures but I found them ever-resourceful and ever-varied; each one is a model of succinct writing. Just as fascinating is the scoring. Malcolm MacDonald speculates that the composer may well have used this suite as a ‘testing-ground’ in which to experiment and to hone his orchestration skills. In that light I was especially taken with the penultimate number, Death of Bunny, which is hushed and contains music of no little feeling. I found this suite, which was new to me, fascinating. I wouldn’t describe it as light music but it could fairly be called lighter music; it’s the product of a richly imaginative mind.

The meat of this programme is provided by the Violin Concerto. This is the work’s second recording: it was first set down in 1993 by Marat Bisengaliev with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Lionel Friend (review). What a pleasing coincidence that the works second recording should feature Scotland’s other symphony orchestra.

As the timing suggests, the concerto is conceived on a large, ambitious scale. It’s cast in the traditional three movements, with the slow movement second, but that’s about the only aspect of the work that could be called traditional; as ever, Brian is his own man. The soloist is given ample opportunity to shine but this is not a ‘display’ concerto; rather, the soloist is on display because the solo part is so technically and musically demanding – the violin is rarely silent for long.

The first movement is a big structure in every way. The orchestral writing is highly complex while the violinist has a great deal of bravura material to negotiate. I noted with interest that at one point Brian gave the work the subtitle, The Heroic, though he quickly dropped that. Though it seems that the subtitle did not refer to the nature of the music I think it fits it rather well; it also accords with the idea of the soloist as a brave protagonist. The music is very varied; there’s a good deal that is powerful but several episodes are lighter and more relaxed. At 10:59 the woodwind have a calm Lento passage and when the violin takes over from them the music is very beautiful indeed; this is a marvellous episode. The whole movement s a prodigious test for the soloist but Lorraine McAslan seems completely undaunted by the manifold challenges that Brian sets her.

With scarcely a pause the slow movement is launched. This takes the form of a passacaglia in which there are 15 variations. There’s a profusion of invention in this movement – perhaps a little too much? For the most part the finale is extrovert and high-spirited. However, there’s a very quiet and mysterious slow passage midway through which is as striking as it’s unusual. Here once again one is left marvelling at how fertile was Brian’s imagination. There’s a big, challenging cadenza before the exuberant conclusion – note how a cymbal is left to resonate at the very end.

The concerto had to wait until 1969 for its first performance which came at the hands of Ralph Holmes in a BBC studio broadcast. The same soloist made a second BBC recording of it and he also played it in public in London in 1979. I wonder how many other performances there have been and whether any other players, apart from the two who have committed it to disc, have taken it up. Frankly, I doubt this concerto is ever going to become established in the repertoire. That’s not because the quality of the piece is poor – far from it – but, rather, because Brian is so inventive in this work that there’s simply too much for the audience to take in during a single concert performance. It finds its ideal home in the recording studio.

The present performance is very fine indeed. Lorraine McAslan is superb and she gets outstanding support from Martyn Brabbins and the RSNO. I wouldn’t care to say if this performance is better than the one on Naxos. Both are very fine and both benefit from exceptional soloists. Two factors may sway your choice. The Naxos recording (originally from Marco Polo) is very good but the Dutton sound is richer and has rather more depth. However, the way Naxos presents the concerto gives them a significant advantage. The concerto is divided into no fewer than 15 separate tracks and in the booklet Malcolm MacDonald’s detailed description of the piece is related to the tracking points. That seems to me to be an ideal way in which to present new or unfamiliar repertoire on disc: would that all labels did likewise. The Brian enthusiast will want both discs, not only because both performances of the concerto are so good but also because the couplings are different and to the best of my knowledge of all the music contained on both CDs only The Tinker’s Wedding is available elsewhere.

The other performances on this Dutton disc are just as successful as that of the concerto. Martyn Brabbins and the RSNO seem to me to offer highly committed and assured playing at all times. Since the disc offers the first – and so far only – recording of the Thirteenth Symphony and the first digital recording of the Suite the attraction to Brian collectors is obvious. Moreover, this varied programme offers an excellent introduction to those who do not know Havergal Brian’s music and wish to dip their toe in the water.

This disc was made with financial support from the Havergal Brian Society. That organisation has done a huge amount to further the cause of Brian’s music over the years; how gratified they must be to see his music so well represented on disc. Unless I’m much mistaken only two Brian symphonies have now to appear on disc; the No. 14 of which a recording is very imminent, and No. 26.

John Quinn

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