Review of premiere

Malcolm MacDonald

Review of premiere - Malcolm MacDonald The Symphony Orchestra of the Leeds College of Music, conductor Joseph Stones, gave the world premiere of Havergal Brian’s Concerto for Orchestra in the opening concert of their music festival on Saturday 12 April. The standard of playing was quite high, and the orchestra had clearly devoted much time to the piece - though perhaps less thought. As a performance it was less than ideal. The work was seriously under characterised, and there was little sense of structural articulation.

The swimming-pool acoustic of Leeds Town Hall provided the exact opposite of the most suitable sound; and this, plus the fact that the percussion tended to play too loud all the time, and that the tempi were generally too fast, allowing the music little time to breathe (the performance took 15’, as against almost 18’ in rehearsal in the afternoon!) perhaps explains why the Concerto emerged with a rather grey and muddy sonority. It should not have done. If anything this is a bright-sounding work with a glinting, metallic quality implied by the scoring and individual harmonic content where sevenths and ninths abound. But it is also very difficult - a virtuoso orchestral showpiece that needs to be played with as much bounce and whiplash precision as the Bartok Concerto. In other respects it is unlike the Bartok, in that instruments are not so often featured as soloists - at most they emerge from and are soon -absorbed into the orchestral fabric. But it is the interplay between various instruments, and their shifting mutual relationships, that help to make the work a true concerto (a playing together) for Orchestra’ - more like the Kodaly. The work is so highly symphonic in structure, however: it seems to pick up the concerns of incorporating a multi-movement plan into a single continuous design which Brian had first explored in Symphony No.17.

There are three main sections: an allegro moderato with a gritty Maestoso Introduction; a flowing, almost Elgarian Andante cantabile and an Allegretto scherzando with a majestic Lento conclusion. These are linked by subordinate transition passages with their own individual sonorities. Within the confines of the overall single movement the main sections have semi-independent structures. The first is a compressed sonata-design (with an actual recapitulation), mainly for full orchestra, but with more soloistic ensembles emerging at each main structural turning-point. The process culminates in a brilliant duet between solo flute and oboe that forms a transition to the Andante.

This, too, shows signs of a self-contained ternary form. It features mainly strings and woodwind but there is a recurring brass-dominated refrain’ which gives rise to an episode concentrated in the brass. A bizarre little episode with prominent piccolo, flutes, muted brass and percussion forms the transition to the Allegretto, which is brief enough to be regarded really as an extended introduction to the coda. The work as a whole progresses from grim determination to constructive energy, through elegiac lyricism, to ebullient high spirits.

It would be wrong to bewail the performance, which was a gallant effort by all concerned and did, I know, give pleasure to several Brian enthusiasts who heard it; it did not, in my opinion, make the Concerto sound nearly as interesting a work as I think it is. This has been true of many Brian first performances - and I would like to hazard a guess at one important reason. Most orchestras, especially amateur ones, are unused to playing music that - like the works of Brian’s last years is most exclusively contrapuntal. There is little plain homophony or melody-and-accompaniment: what we find are melodies and counter-melodies, each with their own identity status, forging towards the same goal by different roads, sometimes spurred on their way by the beat of percussion.

The orchestral sound is not plush and cushioned it must supple and wiry. It cannot depend on following the conductor’s beat - ultimately it depends on knowing that other people are playing, and why, and how one should respond and fit in. Playing Shostakovich, Ravel, and Tchaikovsky (as the CLCM Symphony were in the rest of their concert) does not really prepare an orchestra for Brian: he is not that kind of composer. A diet of Bach might, or early Schoenberg, for all the enormous differences in idiom.

Clearly rehearsal-time is a factor; but it seems to me that a conductor who has introduced his orchestra to a late Brian work could do worse than devote his entire first rehearsal to building up the supposedly ‘thick’ textures line by line, coaching individual sections of the orchestra and bringing them in one by one, urging them to listen and respond to each other. The massive sounds should not deceive performers: Brian composer very finely-balanced, intricate, interlocking musical organisms in which every player’s concentration is stretched to the limit. In optimum conditions the works ought to come off as an experience of individual responsibility within a community like very few other things in music.


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