Recording Brian with the Philharmonia

Rodney Stephen Newton

Rodney Stephen Newton The author played percussion with the Phiharmonia on BBC recordings of Symphonies 29 and 32 with Myer Fredman and Nos 27 and 31 with Sir Charles Mackerras

In December 1975 and January 1979 I was privileged to take part in the recording of four Brian symphonies (for the BBC) with the Philharmonia Orchestra. The percussion requirements of symphonies 27, 29, 31 and 32 meant a large percussion section numbering up to nine players (each symphony requiring, as usual, three side drums but no other unusual effects).

Thus on 19 December 1978 we all trouped into Studio 1 at Maida Vale to tackle the first on the list - Brian’s Symphony No 29. This comparatively straightforward neo-classical work presented little difficulty for the Philharmonia (with an impressive repertoire of Brian under their belts) and Myer Fredman’s relaxed manner soon put everyone at their ease. There was one minor disaster - a clarinet player had taken his part home to practise some time beforehand and had subsequently taken on a spell of work in the USA. A deputy had been arranged, but the poor fellow was dismayed to find that his colleague had accidentally taken the music to America with him! Thus the deputy had to spend the first rehearsal reading his part (with little apparent difficulty) from a copy of the full score.

The 32nd Symphony proved a different kettle of fish altogether. An introspective work, eschewing the outgoing ebullience of No 29, it proved a much tougher nut to crack. The horn parts are cruelly high in places and the Philharmonia horns certainly earned their interval break! The rehearsal for this work was at the less comfortable venue of St Pancras Town Hall. Nevertheless, the orchestra worked as hard and as seriously as on the previous occasion, being fully attentive to Mr Fredman’s directions at all times.

The recording session (on 22 December) - back at the BBC’s Maida Vale studios - found us on the brink of a strike by the members of the Association of Broadcasting Staff. The schedule was for a three-hour rehearsal in the morning and a recording session from 2 o'clock until 5p.m. (the Humoreskes of Sibelius also being included in the programme). However, the impending strike meant that the studios were to be locked from 4 pm. Dr Robert Simpson addressed the orchestra and explained the problem. He then went on to say: ‘We have two alternatives - we can record the Brian items this morning on a rehearse-record basis - or do them this afternoon and adopt very fast tempi!’ Amid much laughter the former resolution was passed - delighting the heavy brass and percussion as they were able to go home after lunch (always a popular move in every orchestra).

With the need to get all the Brian in the can before lunch, the Philharmonia gave their utmost concentration to the brief rehearsal periods before launching into two splendid performances of Symphonies 29 and 32. Indeed, from the spirited way the brass played the outer movements of No 29, one would think the work had been in their repertoire for months.

The next spate of rehearsals and subsequent recording took place on 7,8 and 9 January of this year [1979] and were devoted to the first performances of the 27th and 31st Symphonies. These were given under the baton of Sir Charles Mackerras - a newcomer to Brian’s music but a genuine enthusiast nonetheless. Some time previous to the initial rehearsal I has spent a morning at the home of Sir Charles and Lady Mackerras running through the two symphonies on the piano from copies of Brian’s short scores. Being relatively unfamiliar with the Brian idiom, Sir Charles was keen to have the essential shape and harmonies of the symphonies firmly in his mind before he came to rehearse the Philharmonia.

Such preparation, highly typical of the conductor, certainly paid off. The music soon began to take shape under his direction and, from the first rehearsal (at Maida Vale) he displayed a remarkable grasp of the essentials of Brian’s style. Much time was spent on getting details of balance right so that the principal lines were never obscured. Together with Sir Charles’ well-known flair for the dramatic in music, Symphony No 27 emerged as a powerful edifice encapsulating moments of reflective beauty (and at just on 22 minutes turned out to be a good deal shorter than had previously been surmised). Much credit must also go to the principal flute of the Philharmonia, whose playing did much to enhance the overall excellence of the interpretation.

The Symphony No 31 was rehearsed at Henry Wood Hall where both symphonies were finally recorded (together with Berlioz’ Nuits d‘été). I have come to regard "Brian 31" as one of his finest creations. A beautifully proportioned work, it teems with memorable moments and leads to a warm final cadence. The playing during the rehearsal and recording of this work sounded even finer than before, and quite a few of the players told me afterwards that they found both these symphonies gratifying to play.

The recording went without a hitch and it was very nice to see Society members David Brown, Ted Heaton and Malcolm MacDonald at the session. Afterwards, Sir Charles expressed his pleasure at performing the works, and all have now begun to look forward to his performances of the Faust excerpts and Symphony No 2 at Maida Vale next month, and the Gothic with the London Symphony Orchestra scheduled (d.v.!) for May 1980. If these present recordings are anything to go by, they should be memorable events indeed.

SYMPHONIES 27 . 29 . 31 . 32