BBC Symphony Concerts

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

The BBC concert at Queen’s Hall on February 21st, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, introduced the famous Piano Concerto in C by Busoni, a work in five movements, the last a choral finale, with Egon Petri as soloist1. In this case Busoni’s urge and restlessness for exploration of the unknown resulted in an extraordinary and completely satisfying masterpiece. From the point of view of invention, structure and variety of orchestration, the concerto is complete. Despite the concerto’s vast length, it never sags. Both Petri and Boult deserved the ovation which followed the close of the work. The evening was one of highlights in orchestral playing. A performance of Beethoven’s No 8 Symphony was one of few outstanding performances which we remember by reason of its verve, tenderness and the subtle manner in which the composer’s ironical humour was revealed without being underlined. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 2 in F was spiritedly played with some distinguished solo playing.

The concert at the Queen’s Hall on February 28th, conducted by Ansermet, was a challenge to the most sensitive type of orchestral virtuosity, for two of the works - Debussy’s La mer and Elgar’s Enigma variations - were performed by Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Queen’s Hall during the recent visit, and many agree that Toscanini achieved his greatest triumph in Debussy’s La Mer. The BBC performance fell little short of that by the New York Philharmonic. The actual difference in the two performances is very similar to the differences in the temperament of two actors, both of whom essay the same role. Similarly, the technique of the Enigma performance lacked nothing by way of mere orchestral playing. Differences were a matter of personality. Ansermet’s version had neither the improvisatory or abrupt manner of Elgar when conducting his own work. After AJ Jaeger’s death, the Nimrod variation (named after him) had a tenderness and expansiveness under Richter which even Elgar himself never achieved. In this way Ansermet is at a disadvantage. His intimate knowledge of the work was obvious enough. Szigeti gave a very individual performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto. The concert opened with a short work for brass by Gabrieli, the great Italian who may not unjustly be regarded as the father of modern German music.

  1. This was its first broadcast in England, but third English performance: Busoni himself had conducted it, with Petri as soloist, at the 1909 Newcastle Festival, and the following year had introduced it to London, when the pianist was Mark Hambourg. ↩︎


Musical opinion, April 1934, p. 623