Sunday, 7 December 2008

Havergal Brian: The Early Works

I recently bought the Campion recording of Havergal Brian’s early works. I had never heard them before and was really looking forward to exploring them – especially the Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme, the Festal Dance and the English Suite No.1. Now, I do know that the Hull Youth Symphony Orchestra is exactly what it states – an orchestra of young people who are not (or not yet) professional musicians – so it is not fair to be too critical of their efforts. Let me just say that I did have problems with this CD.
With both the musical side and the sound reproduction quality there is a lot to be desired. Musically, there are issues with balance, intonation and the technical capabilities of the players. From the reproduction side there appears to be tape speed problems. It is, to be honest, quite a hard CD to listen to. Additionally, the lack of cueing for the English Suite means a newcomer has to guess where they are in this six-movement piece. Yet, allowances can be made. This is a vital part of the composer’s career and demands to be heard. At least we can hear these works on this double CD and form a provisional view of the music’s worth. My only concern is that is not right to present this music in a less than professional recording: I worry that people could be put off Brian’s music–and that would be a tragedy.

I am also concerned that the Havergal Brian project that Marco Polo was developing in conjunction with the Havergal Brian Society has ground to a complete standstill. Moreover, even recordings that have been issued are no longer available and have been deleted from the catalogues. Fortunately, Naxos have re-issued a few works including the Gothic Symphony and the Violin Concerto – yet this also seems to have run out of steam.
There is a danger that the re-assessment of Brian that has taken place over the last thirty years could grind to a halt. It would be a shame – as he is surely one of the greatest composers that this country has produced. I guess that he will never be seen as mainstream, but will inhabit the same world as Sorabji and Foulds.
I believe that one of the great desiderata for Brian must be a full professional recording of the early works and also the other extant English Suites. These are approachable and would surely act as a conduit for listeners into the great symphonic cycle that Brian is famed for – but which very few people actually know.

This CD can be purchased from Campion

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