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Havergal BRIAN (1876-1972)
The Vision of Cleopatra - Tragic Poem (1907) [38:14]
Two Choral Pieces (1912) [10:56]
Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme (1907) [11:50]
Overture: For Valour (1904 rev. 1906) [12:29]
Claudia Huckle (contralto - Cleopatra)
Peter Auty (tenor - Anthony)
Claudia Boyle (soprano - Iris)
Angharad Lyddon (mezzo-soprano - Charmion)
Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera/ Martyn Brabbins
rec. 2017, St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London. DDD
Texts included
Review in stereo

Here’s another addition to the Havergal Brian discography, with The Vision of Cleopatra receiving its recorded premiere. Conductor Martyn Brabbins is no stranger to Brian’s music: he already has, I believe, five discs of the composer’s music to his credit (review ~ review ~ review ~ review), including the justly celebrated live recording of the ‘Gothic’ Symphony (review).

Brian devotees will be especially intrigued by a first opportunity to hear The Vision of Cleopatra which here receives its premiere recording. I draw on the comprehensive booklet note by composer John Pickard for the background. The cantata was composed by Brian in 1907 as his entry in a competition the following year organised by the Norwich Festival. As it was a competition, composers were required to set a prescribed text authored by Gerald Cumberland (1879-1926). Cumberland’s name was previously unknown to me and if this libretto is typical of his work then perhaps that’s no surprise. I think John Pickard is pretty generous in describing it as “febrile” and stating that “perhaps the kindest thing that can be said about it is that it is very much of its time…” Frankly, it strikes me as overblown tosh. More seriously, the words lack any kind of narrative structure or context until about halfway through when Cumberland has Cleopatra contemplating her impending death, after which chorus and orchestra mourn her. It may be significant that this second half of the cantata struck me as containing most of the best music in the piece.

The Vision of Cleopatra didn’t win the Norwich competition – Julius Harrison was the winning composer - but it sufficiently impressed the judges that a second prize was created specially to award to Havergal Brian. The cantata achieved a performance from the Hallé and Landon Ronald in Southport in 1909 but that seems to have been its sole outing. Not only did the work lapse into complete obscurity, but the full score and orchestral parts were lost in a fire during the Blitz in 1941. However, the vocal score had been published and when John Pickard came to reconstruct the work in 2014 at the invitation of the Havergal Brian Society, not only could he make use of the piano reduction in the vocal score but, happily, the vocal score contained a list of the orchestral forces. Pickard has made one or two very minor tweaks to the roster of instruments and he’s been able to tap into his knowledge of a number of Brian’s orchestral works composed at around the same time. His intuitive reconstruction of the orchestration seems extremely convincing to me. Unsurprisingly, given the subject matter, there’s something of an exotic flavour to the orchestral scoring which, overall, is rich, colourful and full of interest.

The recording is very helpfully divided into seven tracks. As a whole, the music is complex and richly scored. There’s none of the gruffness that characterises so much of Brian’s late output; instead there’s often an opulence that puts one in mind of Elgar or Strauss. There’s a fine orchestral introduction entitled ‘Slave Dance’, after which two of Cleopatra’s companions, Iris and Charmion have solos, interspersed with some choral passages. There follows an ardent love duet between Antony and Cleopatra (track 3). As I say, the duet is ardent but I rather wonder if it isn’t somewhat overblown. Incidentally, it’s somewhat unexpected to have a contralto engaged in a love duet with a tenor – one would more normally expect a soprano or a mezzo – but the timbre of the contralto voice does emphasise the sultriness of the heroine’s nature.

The music so far is interesting but, with the exception of the ‘Slave Dance’, I find that the work only truly comes to life with Cleopatra’s extended solo after the love duet (‘Far back within the womb of time’ - track 4). Here Claudia Huckle offers expressive, warm singing. I’m not quite so taken with the choral episode that follows, where the vocal textures are often quite awkward and, I thought. gratuitously complex (track 5). The next passage, introduced by a plangent cor anglais solo, is Cleopatra’s eloquent lament in the face of her impending doom (track 6). Claudia Huckle puts this across very well. The cantata then ends with a choral/orchestral funeral march, which is quite imposing. John Pickard’s work on this score has filled in an important lacuna in our knowledge of the music from Havergal Brian’s period of early success.

The Two Choral Pieces are described by Dutton as “World Professional Premieres”. These are settings of poems by Robert Herrick and we learn from the notes that a third setting was composed but is lost: were the three planned as a set? The pieces are set for female chorus and orchestra; the nature of the scoring implies a lighter touch that one experiences in the other works on this disc, so the Choral Pieces offer welcome contrast. The first, ‘Requiem for the Rose’ contains some of the most refined and delicate music that I’ve heard from Brian’s pen. It’s an impressive piece of writing.The second, which is only about one-third of the length of its predecessor, is ‘The Hag’. It’s aptly described by John Pickard as “a gleefully grotesque scherzo”.

I have heard both of the remaining works before. The Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme began life as the first movement of a four-movement Fantastic Symphony. The middle movements were dropped, while the finale, entitled Festal Dance, became an independent orchestral work, as did the Fantastic Variations. The subject for the variations is the well-known nursery rhyme Three Blind Mice. Brian uses this tune as the basis for an inventive and witty set of variations. There’s a good deal of ingenuity and no little humour on display in this very enjoyable piece. The resourceful scoring demonstrates Brian’s command of large orchestral forces and when towards the end he throws in an organ part for good measure (9:01) the effect is imposing. The piece ends with an effective elegy for the trio of slain rodents. As I listened to this excellent performance, I wondered why the piece is not heard more often. It may be a question of the large orchestral forces involved, but I suspect it’s more to do with unfamiliarity and box-office timidity on the part of concert promoters. If so, that’s a pity because this is an entertaining work which I’m sure people would enjoy if given the chance.

The Overture: For Valour is interesting. John Pickard draws attention to the fact that ‘For Valour’ is the inscription on the Victoria Cross: he believes the piece may have been revised in 1906, fifty years after the institution of the UK’s premier award for gallantry; Sir Henry Wood gave the first performance at the 1907 Proms. Again, the orchestral forces are very substantial and there’s an important organ part throughout the score. What interests me above all about the piece is the way in which opulently scored episodes of martial swagger sit cheek by jowl with much more restrained, thoughtful passages. There’s a nobility about this piece that is pretty impressive. Impressive, too, is the great assurance that Brian displays in handling large orchestral forces. Martyn Brabbins leads a performance that is both full-blooded and, at times, sensitive.

This will be a self-recommending issue for admirers of Havergal Brian’s music. Though I find The Vision of Cleopatra an uneven work that’s very much a personal view. All the music on this programme is interesting and it’s very well performed. I noted with interest the involvement of the ENO Chorus and Orchestra. I wonder if this signals a new trend and that we shall see more of them in the recording studios, especially since Martyn Brabbins, now the company’s Music Director, is such a regular recording artist. If so, that can only be a good thing.

I listened to this hybrid SACD using the stereo layer since I’m not equipped for surround sound; I got very satisfactory results. The performances are presented in excellent sound; I like the intelligent way that the engineers have nicely judged the acoustic of St Jude-on-the-Hill. The building’s natural resonance puts a very pleasing bloom on the sound yet there’s no sacrifice of clarity. John Pickard’s booklet essay is exemplary.

John Quinn

Previous review: Nick Barnard



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