Recording Brian in Liverpool

Lewis Foreman

Lewis Foreman

Sometimes opportunism comes into play in getting unfamiliar music recorded – if the music is available when someone has a cancellation all kinds of things can get done. I first learned this lesson in 1969 when RCA had to cancel an LSO recording at short notice and a full orchestral session would have gone to waste if some fast leg-work had not produced the performing materials of Bax’s third symphony and the conductor Edward Downes, available to conduct at literally a couple of days’ notice.
Over the years there have been other similar opportunities and I am delighted to be able to report that failure of expected funding for a piece by Parry gave an opportunity which thanks to a quick response by John Grimshaw and the Brian Society committee, saw Havergal Brian’s Psalm 23 recorded in the Philharmonic Hall Liverpool on 14 July. This is for issue by the Danish Classico label in their now well-known British music series ‘The British Symphonic Collection’, on a CD to be called “Elgar and the English Choral Tradition”.

The British Symphonic Collection, which is masterminded by conductor Douglas Bostock, started by confining itself strictly to symphonies but has recently broadened its scope to include a wide-range of British music from the Victorian period to the mid-twentieth century, its most recent volume including York Bowen’s romantic second symphony with orchestral pieces by Frederic Austin and Edgar Bainton (CLASS CD404). Douglas Bostock has, indeed, considered recording Brian before, but the existence of the on-going Marco Polo series has rather resulted in other record companies steering clear of Brian as someone else’s territory, and also for fear of expensive duplication. So finding a slot for Brian in this on-going Classico series was a source of some satisfaction for me, and more important, perhaps, being able to features Brian as a regular member of a mainstream programme rather than something special. This CD programme is targeted at lovers of British music, and especially local choral societies.

So, over the weekend of 13/14 July all concerned worked hard indoors, while the sun poured down outside! The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and their well-prepared choir responded to their conductor’s infectious enthusiasm, and in the familiar acoustic of their home in the Philharmonic Hall, with conductor Douglas Bostock recording a 75-minute programme of otherwise unavailable British choral music for Classico. A triumph of organisation and preparation, it was completed in four sessions.
This had taken some fifteen months to set up, not only selecting the programme and sourcing the performing materials, but also piecing together a patchwork of funding to pay for it. It nearly came to grief very late in the day when one funding source unexpectedly declined to participate, and the project was only saved by replacing it with Havergal Brian’s Psalm 23 very late in the day, thanks to the Brian Society’s generous and timely support more than matched by an increased contribution by Classico, to keep the project on the go.

The programme recorded was of shorter pieces for chorus and orchestra, pieces which are either unrecorded or not available on CD. It was all built round Elgar, and started with Elgar’s With proud thanksgiving his arrangement of his For the fallen for the unveiling of the Cenotaph, in the event not used. This was followed by Frank Bridge’s A prayer; Herbert Howells’ Sine nomine and Dyson’s The blacksmiths. The programme is completed by Brian’s Psalm 23 and Elgar’s 1929 Three Choirs orchestration of Purcell’s verse motet Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes mei (Jehova, how many are they that vex me), in Donald Hunt’s performing edition.
Peter Olufsen, the owner of Classico, was present at the sessions and in good form, with producer Martin Cotton, and engineer Tony Wass; the same team that made such a success of the RLPO’s recording of concertos for orchestra by McCabe, Hoddinott and Gregson. The first day started at 2.00 on Saturday afternoon and, with a break between 5 and 6.30, continued to 9.30. The following day it was a 10.30 start and it was all over by 6.30. The whole programme was safely in the can as planned.

On the CD the Brian will follow Howells’ Sine nomine. This work is for two vocalising soloists, the chorus only coming in at the end, when it is in eight parts and very softly sung indeed, the pianissimo voices weaving together with the orchestra, and finally crowned by the two soloists. Howells instructs that at first the upper voices just hum while the basses sing to the vowel sound in ‘dove’. Here were overtones of Holst in Neptune and Debussy in the Nocturnes which had doubtless inspired the young Howells, and in the solo voices the Vaughan Williams of the Pastoral symphony which it immediately follows. Hearing it in the flesh made one realise how in 1922 it must have sounded very modern and exciting, and it has to be said that Howells’ palette is remarkably striking.

The Howells provided a great contrast to the forceful tread of Havergal Brian’s large scale setting of Psalm 23, written early in the 1900s, dated by Brian to 1901 but probably from a few years later, and the earliest piece on the programme. As readers will remember, Brian said the orchestral score was lost at Lewes, Sussex, in 1920, and towards the end of the Second World War he produced a new orchestral score. When he wrote the Psalm the 25-year-old Brian, then still living in the Potteries, regularly exposed to the great choirs of the time, and he made this a big and varied piece and one can imagine his hopes for the music – ‘that’ll show ’em!’ Sadly, he never heard it.

Much space was spent in earlier journals (reprinted in Jürgen Schaarwächter’s HB: aspects of Havergal Brian) discussing the style and dating of Brian’s Psalm. In rounding this off Malcolm MacDonald reminds us that Brian told Reginald Nettel in December 1944 that his publisher Cranz had returned his unpublished works including the vocal score of the Psalm 23 which Brian now found ‘a little masterpiece’ and in February 1945 he remarked that he was re-scoring it for its ‘original orchestra’. Now, having sat through a recording session, score in hand, I am inclined to say that Brian achieved a sound and a technique that seems to be securely of its time, an example of the Edwardian young upstart than a post-Prometheus late one.

It is interesting to hear Brian’s treatment of the chorus, and in particular the many soft passages where he clearly had in mind the massed choirs of the great choral festivals of his day. Yet even in the opening bars, the solemn marching music, the scale, and the sudden juxtaposition of opposing moods were all redolent of the mature Brian. Here was surely a composer who had found his voice in the early 1900s, as he must have realised anew, when he revisited the vocal score again in 1944.

Of course when heard in the context of this programme, and placed besides works showing much later influences and textures it betrays its date, yet it is all of a piece and it was most rewarding to hear textures that at a first run through sounded clotted suddenly clarifying, as all the performers took on the idiom and understood Brian’s contrasting episodes and asides, which need to speak to make sense. As always with Brian, it is essential to get into the music to realise the composer’s vision, it was a privilege to be able to do so during the repeated takes of a recording session.

This is vividly imagined music and full of personality. The RLPO had played it before, at the 1992 Three Choirs, though few of the players seemed to remember it. Here the problem was articulating the music and not letting it get too heavy, which Douglas Bostock successfully did by adopting relatively fast tempi and highlighting the contrasts. The vocal score give a running time of c18 minutes, in fact in this performance it took 15’ 25”, I think to the music’s advantage.

NL163 © 2002 Lewis Foreman

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