Reflections over 45 years

Martin Grossel

I first became aware of Brian the composer when, as a young teenager interested in Mahler’s music, I came across Deryck Cooke’s Chapter Liszt, Mahler and After in Penguin Books’ Choral Music (ed Arthur Jacobs, published in 1963). I had been drawn into classical music through Beethoven (particularly the 9th) and radio broadcasts of Mahler’s 1st and 7th Symphony (the latter conducted by Dean Dixon clearly made a strong impression on me at the age of 13 – I’d love to hear it again now!).

However, it was not until 1967 that I learned more about Brian when, encouraged by Harold Truscott’s chapter in volume 2 of Penguin’s The Symphony, I heard the early broadcasts of the 4th (conducted by Handford), the then unnumbered 6th (conducted by Robinson) and particularly through Newstone’s excellent performance of the 7th symphony all of which left me keen to hear more. This latter will always have a very special place in my affection despite Mackerras’s subsequent excellent commercial recording.

The Boult performance of the Gothic in 1966 presented a real dilemma for me (just as did the first performance of Deryck Cooke’s realisation of Mahler’s 10th Symphony) – I could either go to the performance or stay at home and tape-record the broadcast. In both cases I chose the latter course, a decision which allowed me to thoroughly explore the music over the subsequent years though I still wish I had been at each of those concerts!

There followed a relatively quiet period during which I was lucky enough one morning to catch the first performance of the Violin Concerto by Ralph Holmes – a work which I have thoroughly enjoyed ever since. This was followed in 1970 by Downes’ performances of the 14th and 21st symphonies. These proved more difficult to get to grips with but over the years I have come to rate the 14th highly and greatly regret that this work is not yet available commercially. In contrast Fredman’s interpretations of the 8th, 9th and 22nd symphonies broadcast in the following year made an immediate positive impact.

Early in 1973 an advertisement by Musica Viva offering Brian scores for sale put me in touch with Graham Hatton. He invited me to attend the BBC’s recording session for Brian’s 6th, 16th and 24th Symphonies. There I met many of those who played a key part in the subsequent emergence of Brian’s music and, of course, James Reid Baxter who was studying at St Andrews University at the time. This meeting triggered the letter to the Gramophone announcing the formation of the informal precursor to the present Havergal Brian Society.

That spring also saw the Kensington Symphony Orchestra’s heroic efforts to perform the 2nd Symphony under Leslie Head. I managed to attend both the Brighton and St John’s, Smith Square, concerts each of which left me desperately hoping for a fully professional performance. Sadly despite more recent efforts I feel that I have yet to hear a fully involving version of this fascinating work. During the summer the BBC broadcast Richard Armstrong’s performance of Agamemnon and at last I had a chance to hear some Brian opera.

That autumn I started my research fellowship in Oxford and well remember one amusing evening when I, then the youngest and a rather new and shy member of the SCR, was left after dinner chatting with Sir Tom Armstrong and Professor Henry Chadwick (then the head of my college, Christ Church). The conversation traversed many aspects of English music from the Tudor Taverner to Alan Bush, and at one point I mentioned Brian’s name and my interest in promoting his work. I don’t remember Armstrong’s reaction but do well recall Henry looking rather sceptical and suggesting that maybe I should concentrate on Chemistry! I did subsequently try and persuade Simon Preston to perform Psalm 23 in the cathedral but he moved on before this could come to fruition.

Thanks once again to Graham Hatton’s invitation I subsequently attended Stanley Pope’s recording of the 3rd symphony – a performance which has remained one of my favourites ever since, along with Schmidt’s Gothic (which, with improved technology, I managed to both attend and record!). Of the subsequent Alexandra Palace concerts that of the 4th was a particularly memorable event despite the cavernous acoustic.

Over the years I have never lost my interest in Brian. Of course we still need to see the completion of recordings of the cycle of the symphonies. One of my major regrets is the lack of a recording of the 14th, a work which has for me weathered well over the many years of listening to the Downes’ broadcast. I have much enjoyed reading the newsletters over recent years and was particularly interested to discover other members’ favourite works. For my part in addition to the 7th and 14th already mentioned, I always gain real pleasure from listening to the 9th, the 3rd and the 6th; but later Brian remains for me a much greater challenge.

I congratulate all those who have contributed so much to the sustaining, growth and development of the Society and wish it a long and successful future. In recent years there have been fewer Brian events on the radio (though his appearance on Composer of the Week was a particular coup) but the Marco Polo/Naxos recordings together with those on EMI and Hyperion, and particularly the recent re-release of Symphonies 6 and 16 on Lyrita do at least mean that his music remains accessible to a wider public. (It is a pity that Chandos has never shown much interest!) At least these discs allow the occasional commercial broadcast to take place by, for example, Rob Cowan on Radio 3, and by chance I even caught a broadcast on Classic FM a few years ago!

Newsletter, NL 200, 2008