Royal Academy of Music Students’ Orchestra

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

This is one of HB’s numerous reviews of the RAM students’ orchestra — and a longer one than usual. His coolness towards the symphonies of Sibelius is, however, quite typical:

The students’ orchestra of the RAM conducted by Sir Henry Wood gave a concert at Queen’s Hall on March 19th. Compared with the multitudinous lines of a Mahler symphony, a Sibelius symphony looks like a babe. But is it? There is a feature in the latter’s symphonies — the third, for instance — of music that will bend but never yield. Of music derived from an almost impenetrable psychological temple; that is, after the composer had written his first symphony; and we suspect, apart from certain exterior features of his first and fifth symphonies, that interest in them is less of love than curiosity. And those long rolling sentences in the third symphony, suggesting something medieval in powerful blank verse, were not written for students.

As Schumann put it, ‘We composers write to ennoble artists not to enrich tradesmen’. And such is the uncompromising attitude of Sibelius. Yet this music of a composer usually unusual led off in the first movement of the third symphony with a note of buoyancy and exaltation; afterwards in the middle movement it gave way to downright languidity and pessimism. But the optimism of the first movement returned in the finale, towards the close of which — after the manner of Brahms — the Finnish composer embraces all his forces. The students’ orchestra battled con amore and bravely with this work, inspired by its watchful conductor.

Sibelius recently drew attention to Mendelssohn’s genius as an orchestral composer; had that been necessary in this country, the production of the Hebrides overture would instantly have brought him back to popularity. Mendelssohn is always with us: the very poetical and spirited rendering brought out all the romantic colouring and the nuances in a manner sufficient to remind us what an original composer he was. Could we have had Anna Williams5, only just for Handel’s great aria Let the bright seraphim, what luck would have been ours! For there really was a faultless trumpet (Sidney Ellison), whose wonderful playing accentuated the absence of an equally distinguished soprano. Miss Dorothy Langmaid has a voice of tenderness and charm, but it lacks the fullness and heroic character necessary for Handel’s aria.

We had unusual refinement of style and finished technique from the solo cellist, Miss Joyce Cohen, who played the second and third movements from the familiar Haydn cello concerto in D. Both in the concerto and the aria the orchestral accompaniment was irreproachable. The second part of the programme included the first movement of Brahms’s piano concerto in D minor (soloist, Olive Cloke), Prologue to Pagliacci sung by Roderick Jones, and concluding with a performance of Stanford’s Irish Rhapsody No 1 in D minor6.

  1. Once-celebrated English soprano (1845-1924) who was often to be heard at the Crystal Palace in its heyday. ↩︎

  2. They didn’t believe in short concerts in those days… ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, April 1937, p. 620