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Havergal BRIAN (1876-1972)
The Vision of Cleopatra - Tragic Poem1,2 (1907) [38:14]
Two Choral Pieces1 (1912) [10:56]
Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme (1907) [11:50]
Overture: For Valour (1904 rev. 1907) [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
Recorded in SA-CD multi-channel and standard stereo hybrid
DUTTON EPOCH CDLX7348 SACD [73:37]

To some degree collectors of Havergal Brian’s music must still be pinching themselves. After years if not decades of neglect it is now possible to hear all the symphonies in professional recordings. Add to that many of the other major orchestral scores - some in multiple versions, as with a couple of the works offered here, major works such as The Tigers as well as songs and piano works and it can be seen that on disc at least Brian is well served. So now record labels are turning towards plugging gaps in the discography. The 35-minute- plus Vision of Cleopatra is just such a gap. Although titled “tragic poem” it is in effect a cantata, which was submitted anonymously for a competition at the 1908 Norwich Festival. Julius Harrison’s setting of the given text by Gerald Cumberland won, but the judging panel that included such luminaries as Delius, Coleridge Taylor and (initially) Bantock awarded this Brian setting a special prize and performance. The latter was in 1909 in Southport played by the Hallé Orchestra under Landon Ronald. Reviews found the work “ultra-modern” and generally rather challenging. After this premiere it languished unperformed and, due to the loss of the full score in the Blitz, unperformable. However, the vocal score did survive and in 2014 composer John Pickard was commissioned to make a new orchestration from that reduction - and that is what is presented here.

Pickard has done a predictably excellent job with the orchestration, choosing the path of trying to emulate scoring that Brian was producing in surviving scores of this period. It is a fairly thankless task given that the self-taught Brian rarely followed convention so my only occasional thought – and it is not a criticism – is that Pickard’s work is occasionally rather more elegant and subtle than Brian produced, or indeed wanted to produce. What is undoubtedly authentic Brian is the awkwardness of much of the vocal writing whether for the soloists or chorus. All credit to the singers for handling this as well as they do. Soprano Claudia Boyle is especially successful in this respect, singing her angular part with confidence and conviction. Likewise the Chorus of English National Opera. As recorded, and from the session photographs in the liner, this seems to be a relatively small group so occasionally individual voices do obtrude, but again they sing with exactly the right kind of attack and near-melodramatic drama which this music requires. A shame that their initial interjections are placed quite forwardly in the recorded mix although the libretto included in the liner has it marked as “in the distance”. The third vocal contribution in the opening scene is from mezzo Angharad Lyddon. Lyddon and Boyle as Charmion and Iris respectively have the roles of setting the scene quite literally for Cleopatra and Anthony and once this ten- minute introduction is over they sing no more.

Here and in the opening ‘Slave Dance’, Brian is rather literal in his musical illustration of Cumberland’s hothouse text. Viewed from a hundred years later this text can be seen as the period piece it is: “She blooms with passionate ardour like a red lily, and her face is hidden and mask’d with all the secrecy of future bliss”. Full texts are provided but the singing is admirably clear, so the words are easily intelligible in all their swoon-inducing glory. The second main scene [track 3] is a duet between Anthony and Cleopatra. Anthony is sung by the rather stridently toned Peter Auty. In fairness Auty has been given a part with a high and often taxing tessitura which also places him in competition with a characteristically heavily scored orchestral accompaniment. Cumberland provides more gems – “Hungrily I seek the royal affluence of your breast” – in fact Anthony gets the worst deal from the libretto with the most hackneyed part of the text given to him. The cumulative effect of this style of libretto is interesting in that it does move the work towards something more operatic than the average British music festival in 1908 would have either expected or indeed been emotionally comfortable with. A great deal of the success of this performance is that it embraces this operatic style with orchestra and singers being encouraged by the skilled direction of Martyn Brabbins to sing and play with impressive flair and explicit drama.

Anthony, having sought the ‘affluence’ for a second time departs and also features no more in the work. This leaves the second half of the work to two extended soliloquies for Cleopatra interspersed by one long chorus and a closing choral ‘coda’. Despite Cumberland’s penchant for upping the barely repressed erotic ante, “In one fair body we were pent - a bound in the strict imprisonment of flesh...”, musically and indeed emotionally this is the more impressive part of the work; in part, because Brian allows the voice greater space around it – Pickard’s scoring through the first of Cleopatra’s solos [track 4] is very effective and subtle. This is the part of the work where I wondered whether Pickard’s scoring, for all its transparent beauty and skill, was possibly too transparent and skilful for Brian at this time. But that is nit-picking and since we will never know for sure it is only right to consider that which we have. Claudia Huckle sings the contralto role of Cleopatra with total conviction and impressive engagement. As a contralto her voice has the right extra weight to its sound. Again, credit to Brabbins for his excellent pacing of these extended scenes. Of course, he has become something of a Brian expert on disc in recent years but here he allies it to his role as current Musical Director of ENO showing that he has a natural feel for dramatic flow as well. Indeed it is worth mentioning here how good it is to hear the excellent ENO orchestra back on disc. They are probably the least recorded of the London-based contracted orchestras and this disc shows throughout – no surprise this to those who hear them live regularly at London's Coliseum – what a fine ensemble they are. The chorus get their main opportunity in the three- minute interlude between Cleopatra's two main ‘arias’. This section, ‘Great silence is o’er everything’ [track 5] is very demanding for the chorus, with overlapping and swiftly moving lines making it hard to maintain perfect ensemble and clarity. The chorus do very well but there is some blurring of the textures which the quite close placement of the choir tends to emphasise.

For a self-taught composer Brian is remarkably secure and confident with his handling of the closing pages. What might be termed as ‘Cleopatra's farewell’ [track 6] is musically and dramatically very compelling, far outstripping the attractive but slightly generic ‘Persian Marketry’ of the introduction. There’s a lovely sinuous solo for a cor anglais over tremolo strings before Cleopatra laments “All is finished” with a chordal progression that pre-echoes much later British music. Indeed, this particular passage strives for a musical language that is quite unlike and more challenging than most British music of the time – let alone that written as part of the British Choral Society tradition. The closing section is a subdued choral funeral march. The music flares to two brief but impressive climaxes, but the impression is of all passion spent. This is not a work that I would suggest as a gateway into Brian’s unique and often eccentric world but for the already-converted it is a must-hear. Especially in a performance as convincing and impressive as this.

Looking at the list of Brian’s works online, a major part of the frustration is just how many are marked "lost". The Two Choral Pieces that come next on the disc are a case in point. It seems that there was a third, ‘Go Happy Rose’ all three with words by Robert Herrick and all scored for a four part female chorus – SSAA. So, as John Pickard says in his extended and exemplary liner note, we are left with a rather lopsided pair; the extended Requiem for a Rose and the short and vigorous choral ‘scherzo’ The Hag. As music I enjoyed the former considerably more than the latter. Again, one can but wonder at Brian's unique musical voice. For a pre-World War I British composer he is producing music quite unlike any of his contemporaries. For sure it might not be as advanced as music coming from the Continent, but it is clear that by being self-taught and extremely well musically read and aware, he was willing to create scores not burdened by the conventions of the British Conservatory system. This does result in the juxtaposition of material that can seem either clumsy or obtuse but once the ear adapts and the head accepts these choices as considered rather than ‘mistakes’ they are very striking. This is especially true of the meditative Requiem for a Rose. Much of The Hag’s vocal writing is in close canon, oddly foreshadowing parts of Britten Ceremony of Carols in its overlapping effect. The chorus produce a deliberately hardened tone which, even if it is marked in the score, is not a good choice as the ear soon tires and it becomes a vocal mannerism. Brian’s vocal writing does not help with clarity and also the church location for the recording blurs the textures further. For me this is the one piece on the disc that fall into the interesting-to-hear only category.

The remainder of the disc is devoted to two orchestral works both of which have appeared on CD before as couplings for the Marco Polo/Naxos series of Brian Symphonies. As recordings, the new versions are superior to the older ones although they pretty good too. Performance-wise I do not find a great deal to choose between Brabbins here or Andrew Penny with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine (in 1994) for the Variations or Tony Rowe with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland (in 1997) for the Overture. One thing I do prefer with the original Marco Polo releases was that both works were divided into multiple tracks. This is especially helpful in Brian’s works which are far from immediately clear in terms of structure. Excellent though Pickard’s note for the new disc is, Malcolm Macdonald’s detailed essays accompanying the original releases almost alone make it worth purchasing those discs.

The ‘Old Rhyme’ subject to Brian’s particular brand of idiosyncratic variation is none other than ‘Three Blind Mice’. Pickard mentions Brian’s penchant for the bizarre and the grotesque while Macdonald highlights his interest in taking the simplest of tunes and then applying the “most sophisticated panoply of modern harmony and orchestration...” Macdonald also hears the influence of Sibelius in this score. Pickard highlights that “grotesquerie, parody and humour are prominent characteristics in much of Brian’s earlier music”. These are qualities which these variations all possess in abundance. Originally part of a four movement ‘Fantastic Symphony’, Brian ditched the scherzo and slow movement and gave the two remaining parts independent lives as these Variations and the Festal Dance. Perhaps more curious is Brian’s use of this tune for an extended work, given that Josef Holbrooke had written another popular set of Symphonic Variations on this same tune just eight years earlier [recorded on CPO 777 442-2]. Holbrooke’s is a polished, relatively straightforward set of variations with the tune usually discernible, whereas Brian disappears off into musically distant territory – following a storyline of his own invention – which is where the Marco Polo sub-tracks help. It has to be said that it is not at all necessary to follow this vague narrative to enjoy the piece. On Marco Polo the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine make a remarkably good job of what must have been deeply unfamiliar music. I like the positively boozy Ukrainian tuba player in the ‘chase’ sequence; his ENO counterpart is the very model of restraint. Here and elsewhere I did find myself wondering whether the engineer Dexter Newman had recessed some parts of the orchestra a little far back into the acoustic of St. Jude on the Hill. The SA-CD sound is good but is by no means the best I have heard in this format or from this label. I listened to the SA-CD stereo layer so perhaps this is better handled in the multi-channel format. Certainly, the Ukrainian brass generally registers with more bite and their natural sound does fit the ‘grotesqueness’ mentioned above. That said, the Ukrainian strings struggle with Brian’s frequently demanding writing. I doubt a collector will be buying this disc for this filler so the simple answer is to enjoy both.

The same can be said of the piece which closes the disc, which is also the earliest composition. The Overture For Valour takes its title from the inscription on Britain’s highest award for military gallantry, The Victoria Cross. Pickard wonders if this big swaggering populist piece deliberately sought popular appeal but both he and MacDonnell point out the formal and structural quirks that Brian was weaving into his music even at this relatively early stage. Under Tony Rowe, the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland give another very good account of the score, the sub-tracking again a major help. The Marco Polo recording is again ‘flatter’, somehow more veiled and less sophisticated than the new Dutton disc, but as with the Variations some of the details in this heavily scored work cut through better, away from the wash of the church acoustic. Brabbins is generally more urgent across the 12-13 minutes of the work but Rowe’s more expansive view is equally valid and effective.

Dutton's presentation is typically good with the afore-mentioned English-only liner note from John Pickard along with photographs from the sessions a major plus. Brabbins continues his excellent work as one of the leading conductors of Brian. The Vision is rightly the main attraction of this disc for Brian's admirers and it receives a suitably persuasive performance.

Not an entry-point disc for Brian but a valuable addition for the already converted.

Nick Barnard

 

 




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