Review of Reid/Barrow recording of Legend

Martin Anderson

The second recording - Martin Anderson Economists sometimes claim to be able to predict the future, though generally members of that breed who attempt to convince us of their clairvoyance are guilty of nothing more dignified than applied lying. But it would not have taken much econometric perspicacity to foresee that one of the first of Brian’s works to be allowed comparative assessment on record would be the Legend for violin and piano. Composed c 1919-21 (the manuscript is undated), the Legend would seem to be another chip from The Gothic’s block, although to my untutored ears it seems much closer in ‘flavour’ to the songs which immediately predate it, some of which can be sampled on Auracle Records AUC 1003. It was Auracle, too, who brought out the first recording of the Legend, with Stephen Levine and Peter Lawson on AUC 1002; the new Legend comes from Edmund Reid and Gretta Barrow on Classical Elegance (a new label to me) LSC 124 — and I have to confess that to my mind the newcomers have it.

To begin with, Messrs Levine and Lawson are saddled with a rather dry acoustic (the Craxton Studios, off Finchley Road in North London), and, if anything, the new record sacrifices a little of Auracle’s clarity for more body of sound. The approach to the work, too, is different: Levine and Lawson see the Legend as an unruly half-cousin to VW’s ascending lark, far less elegant a bird perhaps, but firmly in the English tradition nonetheless. Edmund Reid and Gretta Barrow treat it more as an entity in its own right: it may be that having grown up outside the English ‘pastoral’ tradition (both are West Indian by birth), they are less tempted to ‘place’ the work; or it may be a question of context (the new recording couples Brian with Saint-Saëns, Brahms and Beethoven). Whatever it is, their reading makes the Legend bigger, fiercer, angrier, and that much more important a work.

Tempi have a lot to do with it: the new performance clocks in at 6:37, a whisker over the published score’s suggested 6½ mins. This is more than a minute longer than their rivals’ timing, a big difference in so short a work. But following both with the score reveals that things are not so cut-and-dried as this would suggest. Reid and Barrow make it a little too much a slow—fast—slow piece, with their reading of the dominating Tempo moderato of the first third or so of the piece very close to the Lento of the last two pages. From this point of view Levine and Lawson are rather more successful at integrating the main body of the work, but this merit is largely negated by a persistent perfunctoriness of phrasing, as well as the dry acoustic which, paradoxically, the immaculate surfaces Auracle provide only make more noticeable. What it comes down to, perhaps, is that the West Indians just seem to like Brian’s Legend more.

Both violinists have problems with Brian’s cruel writing in octaves in the turbulent central section, whilst both pianists fail to make audible the bottom notes of some of the left-hand octaves—a small point perhaps, but a strong bass foundation was important to Brian. Reid and Barrow really score in the final section. The generous acoustic and more affectionate playing give a poetic—Legendary—effect to their slower initial Lento tempo, though even they baulk at Brian’s final markings. Five bars from the end the Lento becomes Lento molto, and even that is subjected to a further ritard for the last three chords, as if he cannot bear to let the music fade at last into silence. Beyond the realms of the practical, perhaps, but it would be exciting to hear a duo brave (or foolhardy!) enough to attempt to give this full value.

There is fortunately not much difference between the technical abilities of the players (I say this not because I am acquainted with both violinists personally!) so that your choice of Legend must depend on who best serves Brian—and mine is clearly for Reid and Barrow. The couplings, too, will clearly influence anyone faced with this choice, as many members may be. Auracle offer the far more adventurous combination of a Concertante and sonata by Rawsthorne, Two pieces by Walton and Five pieces by Malcolm Arnold; the other Saint-Saëns’ D minor Sonata, op 75, Brahms’s FAE Scherzo and Beethoven’s Variations on ‘Se vuol ballare’. And Auracle’s sleeve is much more colourful then the dull sepia of the newer disc (which must surely limit its sales appeal in shops).

I should point out, as David Brown did in the Newsletter an issue or two ago, that this second recording of the Legend appeared without prompting or payment of any kind from the HBS, and our thanks should go to Edmund Reid and Gretta Barrow for their enterprise. Perhaps, then the easiest thing to do is to buy both records—they have, after all, only a few minutes of music in common!