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Henry BRANT (1913-2008)
Hommage aux Frères Marx - Three Faithful Portraits (1938) [9:23]
Any Era Any Time of Year - A Walking Ceremony (1987) [19:23]
All Souls Carnival (1949) [15:44]
Pathways to Security (1990) [15:44]
Music for an Imaginary Ballet (1946 ) [8:14]
Michael Ingham (baritone)
Boston Musica Viva/Richard Pittman
rec. 1998?
PHOENIX USA PHCD174 [70:44]

Montreal-born Brant, something of a non-conformist as this disc instantly attests, studied at the McGill Conservatorium (1926–29) and then in New York City (1929–34). He taught at Columbia University and the Juilliard. In 1981 he moved to Santa Barbara, California which proved to be his home for the remainder of his life. Brant's name keeps cropping up in many and disparate directions. His First Symphony was recorded in the early 1950s by Hans Swarowsky. He made an orchestration/realisation of Ives' "Concord Symphony" (based on the Concord Sonata). This has been recorded by Michael Tilson Thomas and Dennis Russell Davies. Brant was an active collaborator with Alex North in his Hollywood scores including Cleopatra and The Misfits. He also helped with the orchestration of North's score for 2001 and conducted the recording session for the ultimately discarded film score. He worked as a jobbing orchestrator for Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, George Antheil, Douglas Moore and Gordon Parks. The Innova label, never a home for bland conformity, have nine Brant volumes of which MWI has reviewed volume 8. In 1999 CRI included him in its American Classics series with a CD including Brant's Orbits, Hieroglyphics and Western Strings. Phoenix have another Brant disc (PHCD127) entitled Kingdom Come/Machinations.

The present disc originally came out in 1998 courtesy of Sony who later agreed reissue arrangements with Jeffrey Kaufman's Phoenix USA label. A glance at their site will confirm that they are no novitiates in well-targeted licensing of great-sounding modern digital recordings. The range of the label's repertoire, with its natural enough emphasis on American composers, should not be ignored.

Hommage aux Frères Marx is from as far back as 1938. Boston Musica Viva immerse themselves in this often uproariously silly, jaunty yet obviously affectionate sending up of three of the brothers: Chico, Groucho and Harpo. In fairness, the concluding Harpo movement with its sentimental quiescence and birdsong could easily have been placed as a middle movement. Brant instead chooses to go out with what amounts to a fantastic quiet flourish. Harpo often suggests some other classical pieces then lurches and veers off in fun having teased the listener. Brant also takes time to add a tint of darkness as well as a more predictable splash of delicious harp-led romance.

The first of two more recent pieces (1987-90) for baritone and ensemble is Any Era Any Time of Year (1987). This is delivered as a sort of sprechgesang, mournful and with hard-edged interventions from the iron-harsh piano and other percussion instruments. This bereft song-cycle benefits from the sound of a prepared piano and a delicately structured line of contributions from the percussion. Pathways to Security is from three years later. It has its tender moments but always punctuated by surprising yet illuminating clashes from individual members of the instrumental ensemble. It's an often-tender piece with more than trace of Copland-style lyricism. By the way, Brant worked with the baritone, Michael Ingham on a collection of Ives' songs on AmCam Records (ACR 10306).

Music for an Imaginary Ballet takes us back to the Frères Marx Hommages. My Mental Marionettes has a typically small ensemble contributing a vivid picture scene. All the edges are sharply, indeed murderously focused, and the tones are often tart and acidic. The Theme - That Tango has everyone heads-down and never letting slip a smirk or anything to break the Grosz-like Weimar images. Ten Years Later is another jackanapes wheeze of a piece - all elbows out and confident but also impudent.

Brant's All Souls Carnival is in six movements. Its gawky charm has been raised on wheezy Stravinskian examples; Petrushka sometimes springs to mind. This is not a lush score - a bravo of a flute, a dry piano, an accordion and a touch of Soldier's Tale. The second movement Questions suggests an Ives-style marriage between a harmonium and Unanswered Question. As for Intermittent Explosions it is bound to raise a smile - and the title is spot-on. The whole piece reeks of caricature and affectionate rather than corrosive satire. The music is a small step forward from the Hommage work dating from a decade earlier.

For these purposes Boston Musica Viva comprised some eleven members joined by Brant on piano, percussion, keyboard, mouth organ, and tin fife. His playing weaves and collides to good effect with the accordion, percussion, contrabass and piano of Boston Musica Viva.

The excellent eight-page leaflet is packed with briefing to good purpose. It includes a page of intro from Henry Brant himself speaking a couple of years before his death.

Brant was a man who revelled in never quite fitting. He had the courage to write to his own tartly skewed agenda in a world that, as ever, looked askance at anything that did not conform. Brant stands at one of the extremes and is well worth adding to your lexicon of styles.

Rob Barnett

 

 




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