This Heritage release, due to be launched in September,
restores to the catalogue the first commercial recordings ever made
of Havergal Brian’s music. For its historic significance alone
this 2 CD set deserves a warm welcome. Symphonies 10 and 21 were recorded
by Unicorn in 1972 and the coupling was available on vinyl (RHS313)
and then briefly on a rather dry sounding CD reissue (UKCD2027) some
years later. The works on the second CD were recorded by CBS in 1974
but have not been reissued since the original LP release in 1975 (CBS
Classics 61612). The Heritage audio engineers have used the original
masters as a starting point to produce this reissue.
I urge potential listeners not to be put off by the fact that the musicians
involved are amateurs. “Schools orchestra” - the very term
can send a shiver down the spine. It conjures up thin, painful strings
and crude, out of tune playing. Well, to put that concern quickly to
bed, the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra made commercial LPs
for the Pye and Argo labels under the direction of Tippett, Bliss and
Previn a few years before these Brian sessions took place. In the 1970s
the orchestra’s patron and regular conductor, Sir Michael Tippett,
compared it favourably to the National Youth Orchestra. Despite occasional
lapses of intonation and a few bars where the youngsters are stretched
close to their limits their playing is really quite remarkable in terms
of its musicality, technical assurance and poise.
As far as repertoire is concerned I can think of no better introduction
to the varied sound-world of Havergal Brian than the music that is on
offer here. We have two short but magnificent symphonies (10 and 22),
an attractive choral work and a quirkily original orchestral suite.
Thrown in for good measure is the only currently available recording
of the very approachable Symphony No.21.
Many sceptics have an entrenched view of Brian as being a self-taught
amateur, big on ideas but small on content and ability. He’s the
man who produced music with so many lines of confusing counterpoint
that all you end up hearing is an opaque, grey, orchestral mush. He
also specialised in composing massive, impracticable scores with the
occasional kitchen sink thrown in for good measure. Well, some of these
observations may contain elements of truth but none of them apply to
any of the works featured here. I don’t sit in the camp that claims
that Brian is a great composer but I object to him being dismissed out
of hand because of unfounded misconceptions and generalisations. His
huge output was admittedly inconsistent but at his best he has something
to say and he’s worth hearing. He’s been treated rather
shoddily over the years by the musical establishment - whoever they
may be - and he deserves more respect and credit for his achievements.
There’s some fabulous, uplifting music to be heard on this Heritage
set. Be warned - some of it can become addictive!
Symphony No.10 is permanently engraved on my mind and has been since
encountering it on the original Unicorn LP. It opens with a gripping
march and fragments of this opening theme form the basis of everything
else that follows. The music is often meditative in nature but there’s
always an underlying menace about it. There are passages of utter stillness
that catch the ear. One such passage - great pianissimo playing from
the orchestra - eventually erupts into a furious storm which then quickly
subsides. The changes of mood and pace are what make this symphony so
special. A violin solo takes us into the world of English pastoral music
but Brian then engulfs the mood of serenity and calm with one final
cataclysmic upheaval before the music quietens down again. The composer
then delivers the most astonishing and hair-raising of endings: the
violin returns, the mood becomes dark, lonely and introspective and
the work finishes with a question mark hanging over it. This is a tremendous
symphony and the inspired performance is as good as you could reasonably
expect from a youth orchestra. Some of the playing is jaw-dropping in
its brilliance. The sense of danger and discovery is tangible. Martyn
Brabbins has recently recorded the 10th
but despite the higher level of orchestral execution his version seems
to lack the magic and atmosphere conjured up by Loughran in Leicester.
Incidentally, you can sample the 10th
symphony and watch
extracts from the LSSO recording session on Youtube
Brian is accused of composing mammoth, overblown works but this can
be brushed aside by listening to Symphony No.22, running as it does
for just over 9 minutes. Written in 1964/65 when he was in his 80s,
the general mood is one of menace and impending doom. Had it been written
in the late 1930s it could be argued that it was the composer’s
reaction to the imminent outbreak of war. The march rhythms, so typical
of Brian, conjure up visions of the military and the gathering of dark
clouds. Moments of repose are regularly brought crashing down and the
ending is magical - it’s another question mark “what next?”
The work has less immediate appeal than the 10th
one of those pieces that can quickly get under your skin. An awful lot
happens in its highly compressed time-span. Heltay’s performance
is superb and the LSSO rises to the challenge. The recent Naxos
version by Alexander Walker has superior orchestral playing but there’s
not much in it and the LSSO is in no way totally outclassed. Walker
also adds an irritating pause between the two movements thus destroying
the continuity of the symphony and he totally misses the mood of foreboding
at the very end. Laszlo Heltay generates more atmosphere and bite and
in truth the thinner string tone of the LSSO allows the listener to
hear more inner detail compared to the luxuriant, smooth sounds generated
by the Russian forces on Naxos. The LSSO versions of 10 and 22 are still
arguably the ones to go for.
Symphony No.21 is good natured and pastoral in mood. It’s less
angry than many of Brian’s pieces and there’s something
very genial about it. The heart of the symphony is the beautiful slow
movement which in turns can be elegiac and then grave with sudden outbursts
of brass sonorities underpinning the string-laden texture. This music
is a nod in the direction of Vaughan Williams and the string section
copes very well with the exposed, legato writing it is asked to deliver.
The ensuing scherzo is mercurial and playful, allowing the orchestra
to display its virtuoso capabilities to the full with its scampering
woodwinds and imposing horns. The finale has passages of Brianesque
grimness and anti-romanticism about it but there are also some light,
melodious interludes; lovely work by the flautist. The momentary lapse
in string ensemble at the very beginning should have been given a retake
but no matter - Eric Pinkett’s realisation of the work is well
worth hearing. Towards the end he propels the music forward and in his
hands the symphony comes to a glowing, optimistic close.
The orchestra has a whale of a time in the English Suite No.5. This
is almost light music but not quite. Brian continually adds some quite
bizarre twists and turns into the fabric and the music isn’t always
as straight forward as it would appear to be from the titles he has
given to the four movements. The opening Trotting to Market
along quite nicely but then we keep encountering pauses and gear changes.
Do the horses keep stopping for a break or do the cart wheels keep falling
off? Either way it’s very congenial, as is the closing movement,
, with its high spirits, attractive folk dance
tune and blazing final bars. The two central movements are the most
satisfying and original. The Restless Stream
is quite remarkable.
Written for woodwind and percussion - with horns included at the very
end - the music bubbles away but there is something quite uncomfortable
and sinister lurking underneath the surface. This short intermezzo could
have been penned by Nielsen in one of his stranger moods. The highlight
of the suite is the stunning Reverie
scored for strings alone.
Running for the best part of 10 minutes this dark elegy is English to
the core but it treads a different path to the likes of Vaughan Williams
and Elgar. This is Brian at his most inspired. This is intensely grave
and searchingly tragic music, expertly scored and beautifully played
by the LSSO string section.
Brian’s Psalm 23 has its foundations firmly rooted in the English
choral tradition. Despite being tuneful, confident and uplifting the
work seems to be missing all the usual Brian fingerprints of originality.
It’s structurally sound and enjoyable to listen to but it’s
hard to make any huge claims for it. The Brighton Festival Chorus and
tenor soloist Paul Taylor sing confidently throughout but the orchestra,
by its own superlative standards, sounds slightly less secure than usual.
Some entries are tentative and the flute and oboe intonation could have
been improved. Maybe the players didn’t quite have the notes under
their fingers. However, it’s still a good performance. Heltay
captures the spirit of the work and the orchestra and choir clearly
understand and enjoy its idiom.
So now to the quality of the CD transfers. The Unicorn 10/21 coupling
taped at De Montfort Hall was always a good recording on vinyl but rather
less appealing when it was reissued on CD. The Heritage transfer is
excellent with a natural balance, clarity, warmth and good clean bass.
The off stage trumpet and horn solos both sound as if they come from
another world and all the climaxes have tremendous presence and bite.
This is analogue sound at its finest. The CBS LP was never very easy
to enjoy with its scrawny, fizzy strings and over-bright percussion.
The Heritage transfer is a miraculous improvement. Symphony 22 and Psalm
23, although recorded in Hove Town Hall, sound very similar in quality
to the Unicorn De Montfort Hall sessions. The chorus in Psalm 23 is
clean and imposing with wonderfully clear diction. The ruinous end of
side distortion encountered on the LP is absent, thus giving the climaxes
plenty of air. The engineering in English Suite No.5, supervised by
a different producer, is more “Phase Four” in its approach.
Everything is very closely recorded and there are a few extraneous noises
to be heard (bow taps and the like). However, there’s no doubting
the physical impact of the music making - glorious horns, highly detailed
woodwind and clear percussion. The string tone is bright and sweet and
the cellos and basses are imposingly realistic.
In summary, this set could convert some new listeners to Brian’s
music. The playing is never less than good and it is often brilliant.
This should be in the collection of anyone even remotely interested
in British music. Bravo.
LSSO Havergal Brian recordings
by John Whitmore