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Havergal BRIAN (1876-1972)
Prelude and Fugue in C minor (1924) [8.27]
Double Fugue in E flat (1924) [15.34]
March from Turandot (1951) [5.45]
Prelude - John Dowland’s Fancy (1934) [3.12]
Four Miniatures (1918-20) [9.47]
Prelude and Fugue in D (1924) [9.20]
Three Illuminations (1916)* [5.44]
Peter Hill (piano)
Douglas Young (piano; Double Fugue)
*Christopher Kay (narration)
rec. Bösendorfer Imperial Concert Grand piano, Concert Hall of the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, 16-17 February 1981; Three Illuminations, Steinway, 15 February 1981
CAMEO CLASSICS CC9016CD [59.03]

It’s good to see the restoration of this 1981 LP recording, as concentration on Brian’s oeuvre largely focuses on the symphonic. It’s true that, in relative terms, the piano music occupies something of a niche in his output, but it is a revealing niche in terms of his stylistic preoccupations and it’s significant, I think, that the majority of the music comes from the period 1916-24.

This last was the year in which he wrote the two Prelude and Fugues – some years before the Bach Book for Harriet Cohen in which leading British composers were asked to contribute to a compendium of works for the pianist. Brian was not eminent enough to have been asked, but it’s intriguing to wonder how he would have responded, seven years later, given these two examples, and to which Bach work he would have turned for transcription or arrangement. His Prelude and Fugue in C minor is sonorous but focuses on arpeggio writing for some of its length. The Fugue has a crabby but expressive quotient all its own. It defers neither to Bach nor to, say, Reger. The companion in D is even more interesting and one of the best, most sustained achievements here. In its sense of concentrated power, and with an admixture of contained wildness, it reveals Brian as an iconoclastic piano writer, with a very personal viewpoint.

In terms of length the Double Fugue in E flat major, from the same fugal-dense year of 1924, offers the longest immersion in Brian’s piano writing. The second pianist is Douglas Young. Again the crabbiness is present, but so – once again – the knowledge that Brian is seeking his own mediation with the medium and is doing so on his own terms. There is no sense of pastiche or homage to this established genre; rather it’s full of serious intent and sonorous interest. One of the pieces that convinced me much less is the Prelude, John Dowland’s Fancy of 1934. It was intended as part of a four-movement suite, an idea suggested by Granville Bantock, but only this Prelude was completed. Harold Truscott’s notes for the LP, reprinted in full here, call it ‘ravishing’ and his admiration is palpable but I find it rather more bright and airy.

The small Four Miniatures dates from the immediate post-war years. The most reflective of the quartet is The Land of Dreams an evocatively titled movement that, in true Brianesque fashion, never truly settles. The last movement is The Birds – though not in a Messiaen sense. Both these two were extracted from his song settings, of Blake, to form stand-alone piano pieces based on the accompaniments. Even earlier – in fact the earliest music here – is Three Illuminations (1916) with texts, the narrations spoken here by Christopher Kay. These lightly satiric character pieces have a topical quality, referencing Zeppelins for instance, that gives them a certain compressed resonance. The March from Turandot is a transcription from 1950-51, and the last piano music to be encountered.

Peter Hill proves a resilient and stylistically assured exponent of Brian’s music, even at its most complex, in the Double Fugue with Young. The recording is a good one and the restoration has ensured that there is fine definition, with a rich but not over-balancing bass, allowing one to appreciate the excellence of the performances without any impediment.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: Paul Corfield Godfrey

Note: There is also a 1997 Minerva Athene CD of Brian's piano music performed by Raymond Clarke, reviewed here.