The Marco Polo cycle

David J Brown

The Marco Polo complete edition - David J Brown The whole thing stemmed from the personal desire of Klaus Heymann (who, for those who don’t know, is the originator and prime mover of the whole HNH/Marco Polo/Naxos enterprise) to record the Violin Concerto and The Gothic. I believe, but am not certain, that his original intention was for the former to be played by his wife Takako Nishizaki, but in the event it was The Gothic that came first. However, there were at that time no plans for a ‘Brian Cycle’ as such. For purely practical reasons, recording The Gothic was repeatedly delayed, but in the end it was got down in Bratislava in two extended sessions in 1989: Part One (for orchestra only) in March and Part Two (soloists, choruses, and enlarged orchestra) in October. Mr Heymann invited me to attend the latter sessions and I subsequently wrote a long piece about them in the Newsletter and a short one in Gramophone.

The reason for doing The Gothic in Bratislava was - apart from economics - the availability of large numbers of professional choristers, and I don’t think many disagree that chorally it was a triumph, whatever may be thought about aspects of the interpretation and orchestral playing. In any event, the recording totally vindicated Mr Heymann’s resolve and was a real commercial success. It has sold to date something over 14 000 sets, has been the best-selling Marco Polo title ever (as distinct from Naxos), and most importantly from the company’s point of view actually went into profit. And this was without any subsidy, either from the HBS or anywhere else. Naturally Mr Heymann was very well disposed to recording some more Brian, and after an exchange of letters accepted a standard subsidy of £2000 from the HBS for any further discs - a pittance compared with what it had cost us to persuade HMV and Hyperion into the studio with the 7th and 3rd Symphonies respectively.
In a series of negotiations by letter I persuaded him from ‘some more symphonies’ to ‘all the symphonies’ to ‘all the orchestral and choral/orchestral works’. This last seemed to me a vital step because I felt (first subjective opinion!) that there was music amongst the non-symphonic works that was quite equal in quality to at least some of the symphonies, and secondly that the very brevity of most of the latter and the sometimes not immediately listener-friendly nature of some (second subjective opinion!) would make some all-symphony discs very dense listening. For all that CDs aren’t necessarily meant to be listened to straight through, inevitably it happens, and four late ones at a time (to make up what sometimes seems the rather tyrannical demands of listeners for their ‘money’s worth’) could have a counter-productive effect. At any rate, Mr Heymann agreed, and in collaboration with Malcolm MacDonald and Committee colleagues I devised couplings over 19 discs that took in the remaining 31 Symphonies, the two solo Concertos, the Concerto for Orchestra, the suites, the overtures, the other orchestral miscellanea, the choral works for which we have full scores, and orchestral extracts from the operas.

Putting the Cycle notionally together on paper was a privilege, and an absolutely fascinating exercise - and one in which personal views on the effect of works both individually and juxtaposed inevitably played a big part. Rightly or wrongly I went for maximum contrast - early with late, symphonic with non-symphonic, expansive with terse, ‘cheerful’ with ‘gloomy’ - rather than a thematic or chronological approach. Also, whether a work had been played before - and how frequently, and how long since the last (usually only!) performance - were factors, as were the forces involved: asking, for example , for a third pair of horns, a fourth trumpet, or a second harp for one piece only out of several was to be avoided if possible. Total duration of each disc was another consideration. Knowing how difficult and unfamiliar much of the music was, and the constraints of session time, I made no attempt to push the notional playing time of each CD beyond the 70-minute mark, and generally was happy with sets of pieces that added up to around 60 (in the event some of the couplings still proved over-ambitious). Finally, as works were ‘used up’, it got increasingly difficult to round off the final instalments as satisfactorily in ‘programme’ terms as the earliest had fallen into place.

In the end the couplings were prepared and presented. There is a lot of ‘I’ in this, but I want to make clear that the content and the ordering of the Cycle was very largely my decision and responsibility - and that I made one cardinal error right at the outset which unfortunately has had repercussions ever since. The choral success of The Gothic drove me to placing Das Siegeslied firmly at the head of the cycle; it seemed obvious that given singing as fine as The Gothic performance, the work could prove at last to live up to the highest claims that had been made for it, and might prove an equal success in sales terms. Sadly this was not to be.
A lso, simultaneously with preparations for Das Siegeslied in Bratislava, HNH had negotiated to make recordings with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland and, largely through the involvement of David Denton, the new UK representative of the company (with whom I principally dealt from then on), earmarked one of the Brian Cycle for early sessions there. They wanted a coupling of purely orchestral works (ie no instrumental soloists or singers) so I moved the set of Symphonies 17 and 32 plus In Memoriam and Festal Dance a couple of notches up the ladder and they were duly recorded in Dublin a few months after Das Siegeslied in June 1992. (For those who are interested, the rationale of that coupling was late-middle-period single-movement symphony + very late multi-movement symphony + the most expansive and solemn, and the briefest and chirpiest, of the early works!).

The discs were released simultaneously. Though Das Siegeslied eventually shifted something over 4500 copies - a perfectly respectable number for any CD of wholly unfamiliar music - the huge forces, orchestral as well as choral, involved made it nearly as expensive to record as The Gothic, and simple arithmetic shows that the yield was thus less than one-sixth the earlier set. As for the Irish disc, again sales were respectable by unfamiliar repertoire standards (a couple of hundred less than Das Siegeslied), but recording in Ireland was far more expensive player-for-player than in Eastern Europe, so that even though the forces involved were a normal large orchestra, it was another costly disc by then Marco Polo standards. The upshot of both was a severe loss for HNH right at the outset of the Cycle, and hence an immediate dilution of their optimism about it.

Nevertheless their commitment to continuing remained, and the next thing that happened was the arrival of Marat Bisengaliev on the scene. Takako Nishizaki was now no longer in the frame for the work, I think because she had some technical playing problem. I don’t know the details of how Marat came to be involved, other than that David Denton was central to it, but crucially he both fell in love with the Violin Concerto and proved to have the technical wizardry to give us the first performance fully as Brian conceived it. That disc, recorded in January 1993 through a special, then one-off deal with BBC Scotland again through the offices of David Denton, had the expert collaboration of Lionel Friend and the BBC SSO and was a great success from all points of view.

Already another recording in Ireland was in prospect, and this time it seemed as if all the auspices were good. Top of the couplings list now was Doctor Merryheart + Symphonies 5 and 11 - what seemed to me an ideal conjunction of works (the wittiest and the most virtuosic of all the early pieces + the chance to capture Brian Rayner Cook’s proven interpretation of the unique Wine of Summer + another uniquely-designed middle-period symphony that had won the hearts of the relatively few able to get to know it from the by then far-distant broadcast premiere). Doctor Merryheart and No. 11 went very well under Adrian Leaper’s baton, but sadly disaster struck when BRC was unwell on the day and subsequently requested that the performance of No.5 be not issued.
This was another body-blow to the Cycle’s financial viability; Marco Polo had spent a lot of money on the sessions and now had no immediate prospect of recouping any of it. I suggested to Mr Heymann that either (a) Merryheart and No.11 be issued alone at a reduced price (total playing time c41 mins), or the rights to Lyrita’s 6 and 16 be acquired to add to them, giving what I still think would have been a 77-minute disc of marvellous music-making and recording. However, he would not agree to either proposal, so two-thirds of a CD that should have put the Cycle back on track instead went on the shelf. It was directly as a result of this series of misfortunes that progress since has been very slow, though internal organisational and policy changes in HNH, details of which I’ve never been privy to, must also have influenced matters. Marco Polo accumulated a large backlog of unissued material, which slowed down new recording.

Adrian Leaper, with what should have been three Brian discs under his belt, stopped making CDs for the company, and their new ‘house conductor for British music’, Andrew Penny, was slotted in to make some recordings in Ukraine. David Denton and Klaus Heymann agreed that another HB could be among them, and so Symphonies 20 and 25 + Fantastic Variations were set down in October 1994. I had always been a little worried about this coupling, on the grounds that the two symphonies were maybe too similar in style, layout, and duration, but in the event (for this listener at least) first thoughts were vindicated, and No.20 in particular made sense at last. However, it received minimal advertising (like its new successor), and one good review in Gramophone, and has not had great sales.

The general downturn in the ‘classical’ recordings industry has also had a dampening effect. David Denton retired last year when Naxos and Marco Polo UK temporarily closed down, and control of repertoire management for the labels shifted to New Zealand (now it’s back in UK). Their UK distribution arrangements also changed. With all this, communication was ever more difficult, and it became increasingly clear to me that effectively driving and guiding something as large and ambitious as this Cycle from a position right outside the industry, with all these difficulties, and very intermittently, due to my own workload, was virtually impossible.
A fter the usual delays, No.2 was recorded in May 1996 in Moscow. To get ‘the last of the big ones’ done always seemed to me, rightly or wrongly, a high priority. But outside personal liking, I do feel that with its overall increasing sense of cumulative tragedy, and the desperate, halting eloquence of the finale, and the total extinction of its end, it could have a sledgehammer emotional appeal to the large public who like their symphonies big and black a la Mahler 6. Whether this happens, given the virtually non-existent publicity (you may be interested to know that the review flyer circulated by the distributor, Select, and intended to grab the attention, managed to describe it with the single word ‘interesting’ - words fail!), remains to be seen.

My intended coupling for No.2 was No.15 (on grounds of absolute contrast, and large forces) as well as Festival Fanfare, but so much time was spent getting No.2 as good as it could be that time ran out in Moscow. With an eye on the shelved Irish works, one of the last things David Denton did was - after much negotiation with the orchestra - to secure two sessions, amongst their busy schedule of recording native works, for Tony Rowe to record a fill-up in Dublin, as well as supervise an overdub of the Dublin Concert Hall organ onto No.2 (there was no organ in Moscow and the part - unlike Fantastic Variations’, also recorded in an organ-less hall in Ukraine - was not ad lib). As he had already prepared No.15, it was the natural choice.

With only weeks to go before the sessions in May 1997, however, I had a request for another piece to take up the remainder of the sessions. I sent Tony the English Suite 4 and For Valour (maximum contrast again!) and he chose the latter because it used a large orchestra in a quite conventional way and thus would not be too demanding for the players in the short time available. Also it had a large organ part. With the two pieces in the can, it would make a well-filled CD of 25’ + 16’ + 21’ + 14’ (before anyone tells me that No.11 runs a half-hour, Adrian Leaper is much brisker than Harry Newstone in the BBC premiere). In the event two things happened: the organ proved to be impossible to dub adequately in the time available, so more delays to No.2 ensued while Chris Craker, the producer, prepared an electronic organ overdub (I’m surprised no-one has mentioned this yet). The other was a real surprise - the total time of the items now waiting is, I’m told, 83 minutes! At the time of writing I’ve not heard edits of No.15 and For Valour, and cannot imagine where the extra seven minutes have come from. If this is true, then it looks as though For Valour will stay in the can until yet more contingency sessions are pinned down in Ireland.

David J Brown was the Secretary/Editor of the Havergal Brian Society 1975-1992 and its Chairman 1994-1998