Friday, 6 November 2009

Havergal Brian: English Suite No.1

I have written in these pages before about the urgent need for a professional recording of the extant English Suites by Havergal Brian. The only version currently available (with a bit of searching) is the 2-CD set from Cameo. Now the playing and the recording quality of this CD do leave a bit to be desired.
The critic in the Gramophone Magazine of April 1980 generously wrote that: “These are by no means easy pieces to play, and occasionally […] one feels that the Hull Youth Symphony […] has bitten off more than they can chew. Nor is their intonation invariably a joy elsewhere. But within the obvious limitations these are good performances and can safely be recommended not only to Brian aficionados but to the general public as well. The recorded sound is if anything slightly superior to the orchestra and previous releases”.
That this is an important work as is clear from this review in The Musical Times. In a future post I will present the contemporaneous review from the Musical Standard. I do worry that the Marco Polo/Naxos series of Brian appears to have ground to a halt. He is one of the most important composers writing in Britain during much of the Twentieth Century.
The English Suite No.1 can be heard on Cameo RR2CD 1331/1332 and is still much better than no recording at all.
THE MUSICAL TIMES: OCTOBER 1, 1907 p.672 [with minor edits] Previous to September 12 few Londoners had heard of Mr. Havergal Brian. He is a well nigh self-taught composer, born in North Staffordshire in 1877, and in the North, notably at Hanley, his compositions have won much esteem. They include three Psalm settings for orchestra and soli, Burlesque Variations for orchestra, a symphonic poem, inspired by Lord Leighton's picture Hero, an English suite, and an overture For valour. The Suite, originally produced at one of the Leeds Town Hall Municipal concerts in January last, was performed for the first time in London on September 12. The poetic basis of the suite is an old English country fair. Rustics assemble to a spirited march, whereunto a humorous element is imparted by the prominence given to that most rural of all instruments, “the loud bassoon”. The next number is a waltz, not of modern sentimentality but a rhythmic measure that stirs the pulse; its influence, however, upon the dancers appears to be much the same, since without break the music passes into an amorous episode entitled “Love under the beech tree”. Presumably the village has only one such trysting-place, a state of affairs which must have caused occasional inconvenience. That the beech tree is not far from the dancers is evident from the strains of the waltz that occasionally mingle with tête-à-tête sentences. The fourth movement, entitled “Interlude”, takes one away from the fair, for the composer says it is “an attempt to convey in sound the emotion which arose while gazing from the Hanchurch hills, in Staffordshire, in the direction of the Wrekin, in Shropshire, the whole country suffused in brilliant sunlight”. Still farther from the spirit of the fair is the next section, in which a hymn-like melody plays a prominent part; but with the concluding movement a return is made to rustic revelry, and a series of episodes introduce us to such sundry side-shows as Punch and Judy, a Sleeping Beauty, and The Breathless Lady, the latter represented by a version of the 'dancers' theme played with mock solemnity by trombones and tuba, shortly after which the work ends in a spirit of carnivalism. One is conscious that the composer is somewhat weak in the art of thematic development, but there is a freshness and significance in his music which indicates creative power.

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