Havergal BRIAN (1976 - 1972)
Symphonic Movements from The Tigers [55:25]
John FOULDS (1880 - 1939)
Pasquinade Symphonique No. 1 [11:48]
Luxembourg Radio Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Hager
rec. Concert Hall, Villa Louvigny, Luxembourg, July and September 1981
HERITAGE HTGCD270 [67:13]
The Heritage label is gradually building a very interesting catalogue of British orchestral music drawn from the back catalogues of various record companies. Having especially enjoyed their two CDs devoted to Bliss conducting his own works (Decca), Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast (HMV) and the pioneering Havergal Brian recordings made by the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra (Unicorn/CBS) the label now turns its attention to more Brian.
Havergal Brian’s first opera, The Tigers, was begun in the middle of World War I. He called it ‘a distraction from war horrors’ and it is essentially a satire on the shambolic unpreparedness of the British army in training on the home front. This CD features the only complete recording of the Symphonic Movements which Brian adapted from the operatic score. As a significant bonus we have the only available recording of Foulds’ Pasquinade Symphonique No. 1. These recordings were originally issued as a 3 LP set Masters of the English Musical Renaissance by Forlane in 1981 and as a double CD in 2001. The original release also included Parry’s Symphony No. 3 and Concertstück along with the Saint Joan Suite, Pasquinade Symphonique No.1 and Mirage by Foulds. I write this review on the day that I have heard the sad news of the untimely passing of Malcolm Macdonald, who has provided us with exemplary programme notes for this Heritage release. Malcolm will be sorely missed.
Although Brian’s work is called Symphonic Movements from The Tigers there’s not much symphonic writing to be heard. A more accurate title might have been Orchestral Suite based on The Tigers. Those who are familiar with Brian’s English Suites will find this to be music in a similar vein. The opening piece, Symphonic Variations, is a set of variations on the music-hall song Has anyone here seen Kelly? The music is by turns comical, merry and often bizarre. The eight variations it contains aren’t really variations in the traditionally accepted sense. What Brian gives us is a series of short musical sketches and it’s a most enjoyable romp. The second movement - Shadow Dance - is a short nocturne illuminated by flashes of bright colour from the high woodwind and violins. We then get to hear Brian in more eccentric form in Gargoyles. This starts off with a dark fugal passage in the strings but then we are treated to the sort of kitchen sink scoring much loved by Brian’s admirers and scoffed at by his critics - braying brass, howling horns and the heavy use of percussion including xylophone. The music then subsides into darkness. It’s grotesquely splendid stuff. Lacryma includes a lovely lament given to the cor anglais and Green Pastures is a lush and sumptuous landscape with some beautiful scoring that includes prominent parts for the harp and celesta. The concluding Wild Horsemen quotes from the opening Has anyone here seen Kelly? movement and from an innocuous opening on the lower strings a manic tarantella starts to unfold. At the climax Ride of the Valkyries is even thrown in for good measure. Not much of the music to be heard in this suite is especially original but it has many of Brian’s fingerprints all over it. However, there’s something gripping and entertaining about it and there’s barely a dull moment. The recent recording of Symphonic Variations by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Garry Walker (Toccata) is probably still the best one available both musically and technically but Leopold Hager still sounds very fresh and his recording is to be warmly welcomed back into the catalogue. When it was first released by Forlane the market wasn’t exactly brimming with Brian recordings and there is an element of discovery to be heard from Hager and his orchestra. Hager also offers all six movements. The playing is highly enthusiastic and generally very good indeed, missing only the last ounce of polish that you would find in an orchestra from the top league.
The Foulds is a superb piece and I was delighted to come across it for the first time. This is traditional, tonal symphonic writing of the highest quality. The work starts with a headlong rush of adrenalin from the strings and then a gripping theme given to the horns and trombones. Seamlessly the second subject creeps in and this soon leads to a fabulous climax reminiscent of Walton. The development section, teeming with ideas, often brings Elgar to mind and the glowing climax to the work is completely satisfying without a hint of bombast. Listening to this music for the first time made a significant impact on me and this will take pride of place with two of my other favourite short pieces - Robin Orr’s Symphony in One Movement and Parry’s Symphonic Variations. It may seem extreme to encourage people to buy this CD for eleven minute filler but I will do that anyway. The Brian is good but the Foulds is magnificent.
This is a fine disc with clean, immediate sound. It is a little studio bound but there is excellent clarity. The choice of orchestra and conductor may appear to be unusual for the repertoire but they do a fine job. This is another excellent Heritage release, supported by the Havergal Brian Society.