First impressions

Larry Alexander

Larry Alexander The first sale copies of the CD [of symphonies 20 and 25, and Fantastic variations] seem to have been in the States, and hot off the press here is Larry Alexander’s first response to it

Impressions on first hearing: glorious disc, with piddly reservations. Sound quality: A plus. Taking the pieces in their order of appearance:

Fantastic Variations

The old Hull LP was my introduction to this parody of Strauss et al and, for all its ‘amateur nights in Dixie’ quality re both performance and sound, I found this early piece quite amusing and witty, not to mention seriously musical. So what if I couldn’t quite make out the orchestral lines with any degree of clarity: the overall impact suited me fine, rather like listening to the last movement of Copland’s 3rd on a less-than-mediocre car radio. Satisfying enough for the time being.

Clarity is about as state-of-the-art as it gets re the CD, and the piece is twice as witty in the details that just weren’t heard in Hull. There was actually a genuine laugh-out-loud moment.

But now the quibble. The deliberately overblown climax of the piece - the de-tailing of the poor blind mice who never harmed a soul, not even the farmer’s wife (sob!) - is a cri de coeur so heart-rending on the Hull shellac that it never has failed to wrench me, much in the same vein as the third go-round of the eerie ascending theme in the fourth movement of the Mahler 6th, or the emotional opening of the 4th movement of the Vaughan Williams London. The new disc handles it well -well, nicely, anyway - but the stab through the heart, not to mention the gut, is missing.

An A-minus. Close, but only a small cigar.

Symphony 20

I have, of course, the BBC tape from the ’76 celebrations, and judging from that I thought the piece substantial if not completely compelling, a kind of bloated 18th… which I considered a masterpiece from the minute I heard it on its BBC tape, particularly the remarkable central movement. In fact, I’m not sure that I don’t prefer the tape interpretation of this to the CD (for much the same reason cited above re the earlier performance of the Variations: the climax on disc, while reasonably powerful, does not to these hearing-aided ears seem equal in anguish).

I never had the problem with the slow movement of the 20th, either on tape or on CD. What startled me was the complete reversal of my former impressions, to wit: that the allegros were tub-thumpy - nice, but so? The disc is a revelation. The first turns out to be borderline astonishing, as does the third, with some of Brian’s most intricately detailed orchestrations and rhythms. I’m at the point in my music-listening career -and my HB appreciation - that very few things in music (heard or unheard) really surprise me very much. There are passages in both these movements that knocked my socks off, if not my hearing aids.

Strangely, though, it’s the second movement which I find less impressive this go round. Not that it’s not good, I hasten to add - it’s fine. But where it kind’a fitted in with the rest of the sonic mush of the off-the-air BBC performance, the fact that so many salubrious details in the bracketing allegros are now exposed for all to hear makes it imperative that the adagio be up to snuff. It’s not; or rather, not at first hearing. (I might very well change my mind if it ‘grows’ on me, like Prokofiev 5, which I began by loathing and ended by loving.)

I am not comparing versions, as I just did with the Variations and the 18th; instead, I’m talking about the composition itself. Perhaps it’s too discursive in the sense that it doesn’t build up to the same sort of epiphany that the slow movement of 18 does; perhaps it’s just one of those ‘secret’ pieces that unlocks itself only after concentrated study.

As I said, these are only first impressions. Call it a B plus for the outer movements, and a B minus for the middle one. More a cigarillo than even a small cigar.

Symphony 25

The biggest surprise of the disc, another knock-your-socks-off Brian delight. Judging (as before) from my collection of BBC tapes, and coming after the magnificence of 22-24 - particularly the closing pages of 24 - I always thought 26-28 to be, well, ehh. How wrong I was. This is a piece of unexcelled invention from first to last, rhythmically brilliant, with an orchestration that would boggle the mind were it from a young self-starter out to bowl the world over; that it was written by a 90-year-old is definitely one for the record books. I swear, not since the final peroration of the 9th did Brian conclude a piece so exultantly: I actually jumped up off the sofa and jerked a clenched fist in the air, yelling ‘yeah’!

A nd here, the slow movement, which is restrained throughout - bleak, as MM [Malcolm MacDonald] notes - works for me. The minute the first bars come up I for one did not expect a big soul-searching climax… which I was led to expect with 20. Here it was winter chill and fog structured logically, and yes, movingly; the perfect prelude to the hijinks and high spirits of the finale. On the spurious Alexander scale of excellence (Brian excellence, that is, which is inevitably more excellent than other composers’ excellences) a five star A-plus. Wow.

Quick, somebody get me a Havana! (An Havana?)

…[fascinating copy not concerning Brian reluctantly cut-JRM]

A final comment on Marco Polo’s Brian cycle as a whole; judging by the snail’s pace of release this past year, not to mention the sheer bad luck in Moscow, Ukraine, and Dublin -not to mention San Francisco - I guess the Society should be satisfied by a release a year. God, I hate the practicalities, not to mention the tides of history and human events. Even so, it’s better than an embarrassed phone-call in which the gulping voice says "gee, guys, I don’t know how to break this to you, but we’ve done as much as we can for you now; maybe we can pick it up in a couple of years down the line.., maybe".

Tell me I’m paranoid, and that it’s going to be three or four discs a year, with the 22-24th, the 13th and the Elegy high on the production list. Puh-leeze!

NL123 © Larry Alexander 1996

Newsletter, NL 123, 1996