Review of City of Hull Youth SO CDs

David J Brown

The City of Hull Youth SO recordings reissued on CD - David J Brown One of the first things that became clear back in the early days of the Society was that, if we were actually going to do something for Brian’s music and not just sit around talking about it, getting more recordings was vital; and for Brian that had to mean primarily orchestral. Three more things were immediately apparent: record companies weren’t interested without sponsorship, Brian was virtually unknown (apart from the reputation of The Gothic) so all the up-front costs had to be found, and session time in the UK with professional orchestras was colossally expensive. Er… four things: the HBS couldn’t begin to afford professional-scale sponsorship.

When the HBS began in 1974, one LP only had been issued - the Unicorn of Symphonies 10 and 21. This had been an act of faith, spurred on by the driving force of Robert Simpson and made possible because the orchestra was the excellent Leicestershire Schools. Three more discs did follow in the next few years, not sponsored by ourselves - another LSSO recording, on CBS, and even two fully professional ones: Symphonies 8 and 9 on EMI and 6 and 16 on Lyrita - but after the 1976 Centenary reaction set in, and matters seemed to have to rest unless we could do something about it. Thus when we learned that a Hull music shop named Gough & Davy was issuing records of its local youth orchestra in unknown British music, an ideal opportunity apparently presented itself to get some more Brian into the catalogue with a less than huge outlay.

His pre-1914 orchestral works seemed the best choice, on the grounds that they were good music and deserved to be heard (right), they would be more immediately accessible to listeners than at least some of the symphonies (right again), that they would be therefore comfortably within the capabilities of a good youth orchestra (wrong), and that good amateur recordings would lead to further interest, perhaps from professional musicians (wrong again). I cannot argue with Kevin Mandry’s suggestion that such recordings could, in fact, well have done the opposite - reinforced the implication that Brian’s music didn’t merit professional attention.

After well-received issues of German’s Second Symphony and Bantock’s Hebridean, G&D’s enterprise ran into sand with the dismal reaction accorded to their third disc, of Holbrooke’s Song of Gwyn ap Nudd Piano Concerto, and it was left to the recording engineer concerned, David Kent-Watson, to pick up the pieces and keep the enterprise going with the Brian issues on his Cameo Classics label. After these three orchestral discs, the HBS had one final collaboration with him on the complete solo piano music, recorded (in very early digital sound) at the Royal Northern College of Music with Peter Hill. I don’t think there would be any reservations if that recording were reissued on CD,

Listening to the present performances again after many years isn’t so much like encountering old friends as being confronted with an embarrassing younger self - naively convinced that uncommitted newcomers to the music, used to the world’s best performers in other repertoire, would willingly listen through the inadequacies of intonation and ensemble. And yet, and yet… orchestra and conductor did their level best with this sometimes highly virtuosic music, on tight schedules (a weekend for each of the three discs: effectively no more time than an equivalent amount of professional sessions) in a cavernous hall with traffic noise problems, and several times achieved memorable felicities in individual playing: a Pan-like first flute in English Suite No 1’s Interlude fourth movement; tuba gloriously all over the place in its big solo early on in the Fantastic Variations.

A nd in some of the slow music, the very vulnerability of ensemble achieved a touching and tender humanity, as in English Suite No 1 again, where the Hymn’s fragile web of string sound touches some parts that more assertiveness and security might not. Nevertheless, it would be idle to deny that again and again the strings are painfully thin, brass blare with more gusto than accuracy, and the tutti sound screeches and bangs in an ill-co-ordinated approximation to what is on the page. One is left surprised at Campion’s confidence in going to the effort of this reissue.

The HBS had nothing to do with [the reissue], and mention of our involvement is in fact discreet and accurate - a passing acknowledgement of our encouragement of the original recordings confined to an introductory note about Brian in the booklet. The notes are sketchy and a trifle odd in parts, with a few phrases from those by yours truly and Gerard Cunliffe on the original sleeves woven in. CD cueing is minimal, with none for the individual movements in English Suite No 1 or the large separate variations in the Burlesque Variations.

And the music itself? To these ears the only sub-standard item is the rather dull Characteristic March which introduces the Suite. Elsewhere Brian’s young self struts and sparkles, sniggers and guffaws with unfailing inventiveness. Mock-heroics, mock-solemnity - and what might just be the real thing - are all on display. This young man thought that he could do anything, one feels, and maybe he could, but maybe also he hadn’t yet quite found what was really worth doing. In later years he did, of course.

There is a bit of textual uniqueness here: Festal Dance has the ad lib but almost ubiquitous piano part omitted from the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland’s account on Marco Polo under Adrian Leaper: not wrong, just fascinatingly different, as is also the case with the equally ad lib and grandiloquently sanctimonious organ at the end of the Fantastic Variations, not available in Kiev where the Ukrainian State Symphony Orchestra recorded it in mid-October with Andrew Penny. This is the latest instalment, coupled with Symphonies 20 and 25, in the Marco Polo cycle, which surely is under no kind of threat from this re-release.

© David J Brown 1994 / NL116

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