Review of Adrian Leaper/Marco Polo CDs

Malcolm MacDonald

Two Marco Polo CDs reviewed by Malcolm MacDonald Symphonies 4, Das Siegeslied, and 12 in Bratislava
Symphonies 17 and 32, In memoriam and Festal dance in Dublin_
see_ Discography for details

I try not to review records for which I’ve written the sleeve-notes, but [in this case] I shall pitch in with my two pennyworth. A general caveat first: it is always possible to imagine better performances and recordings of such complex and virtuosic orchestral works, and any performance of No 4 especially will have its problems. But we’re not going to get them for some time, and certain five-star international orchestras and their much-laurelled conductors might not in any case have accorded the music such care and dedication as Adrian Leaper obviously has in his sessions in Bratislava and Dublin. We’re enabled to hear the works as works, not as read-throughs, and with blessedly little interpretative distortion. Just for that, these discs deserve very high praise.

How many have noticed the dog that didn’t bark? - I mean, the important piano solo part in Festal Dance: which isn’t there? I noticed this immediately I heard a rough-cut tape shortly after I’d written my liner-notes, and enquiries via David Brown revealed that an orchestral piano, though booked, didn’t turn up on the day of the sessions and Adrian Leaper - who David told me was ‘unsure’ about the piano part anyway - decided to go on without it.

This was of course an entirely legitimate course of action, since Brian marks the part ‘ad lib’ even though it is virtually continuous throughout the score - and the Marco Polo recording eloquently demonstrates that Festal Dance sounds perfectly well without it. Still, the piano does add an extra layer of bizarrerie to the proceedings, and I think that ‘ad lib’ or not it was part of Brian’s essential conception - so I still feel it is better to have it in than out. If you want to hear it, [it is on] the Hull Youth SO recording, palpably inferior though that is in other respects, and though the piano/orchestra balance isn’t very good either.

On the whole I admire Adrian Leaper’s accounts of the various works: if I have a general reservation it is with the rather fast speeds he adopts in Brian’s slow movements - the funeral march in No 12, the slow movement in No 32, and the central climax of the second movement of No 4 - which is admittedly marked Allegro vivace but shouldn’t, I feel, sound in any way rushed (my impression is that Maurice Handford’s 1967 broadcast, despite all its problems, got the tempi more effectively than either John Poole or Adrian). A sense of weight and inexorability is central to all three passages.

On the other hand the finale of No 32 seems to me a bit lacking in the requisite energy - perhaps the Dublin orchestra were getting a bit tired by that point. But these are just the ways I personally feel the music: clearly Adrian feels it differently, and it is strong enough to take many different approaches. The gong at the end of No 12, though, is definitely not loud enough! Brian wrote soft final gong-strokes when he wanted them: this isn’t one of those.

These minor carps apart, there’s a great deal to enjoy in the two new discs. The performance of In memoriam is sumptuous, as this wonderful work deserves, and here the comparatively brisk tempo in the central section is absolutely spot on. Though the Siegeslied is somewhat less monumental than the Handford and Poole performances, the quasi-baroque clarity that Leaper brings to it allows many of the details to stand out more clearly than they have before, and powerfully illuminates one side of this many-sided work which has so far been obscured. And it’s a joy to hear so much of the choral textures, and so much of them (if not all in tune).

HB’s incredible ear for striking sonority never ceases to amaze, and is especially well brought out in 12 and 17. The performance of 17 is the most cogent this knotty work has yet had, and I confess of the two discs I find myself most often returning to the ‘slow movement’ of 17 and the first of 32. The former, especially, I find as moving as anything HB ever wrote: so simple in its material and bald in its juxtapositions, yet profound in all its resonances. To be honest, even I don’t ‘get’ No 17’s ‘finale’ section yet. Why does it go nowhere? Why is it so short? But we need performances of at least this standard before we can properly formulate our own responses, positive or negative, to this inexhaustibly surprising composer. The Marco Polo Brian series is going to be one of the major cultural events of the 1990s.

NL107 © Malcolm MacDonald 1993

Newsletter, NL 107, 1993