John Grimshaw

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see Discography for details

In writing this review, I am conscious that I am in the privileged position of having received a test pressing of this CD in mid-November, since which time it has never been far from the CD player, which speaks volumes. Whatever one may think of the performances and recording quality, of which more anon, I believe this is almost certainly the most pleasing programme in the Marco Polo series so far. The pieces are, at the simplest level, in chronological order but beyond that one can almost see the disc as a sort of ‘meta-symphony’ of over 75 minutes duration with For valour as conventional first movement, Dr Merryheart as scherzo, Symphony 11 as slow movement and 15 as ceremonial finale. Brian’s differing moods and styles are so well displayed that it will certainly give the lie to those who still maintain that Brian wrote essentially the same symphony again and again.

Readers of the Newsletter will know that the Leaper performances date back as far as 1993 when they formed part of the sessions with the ill-fated recording of Symphony 5, since which time they have lain dormant awaiting a suitable new coupling. This was provided by sessions in 1997 under Tony Rowe with the same orchestra and while one can spot the difference in recording with this knowledge in mind, to the new hearer these differences should not be noticeable.

What then of the performances? These are well up to the best of previous Marco Polo discs and both conductors have the knack of making Brian flow in a natural way, emphasising the contin-uity in the music rather than the more obvious discontinuities.

Those who know the pioneering recording of For valour by the City of Hull Youth Orchestra under Geoffrey Heald-Smith are likely to have found it gave only the outlines of the work, beset by dodgy string intonation and an occasional vocalisation from the conductor which rather annoyed on repeated hearings. The new version is immediately impressive with the power and sweep of the opening catching the attention straight away. The organ sound is gratifyingly rich and natural. The climaxes have a nobility worthy of Elgar, with superbly articulated brass playing. One constantly tries to relate the piece to other music of the time but even at this stage Brian’s voice was so much his own that any parallels are at best fitful. This is a very convincing rendering, Rowe being equally as sympathetic to this early work Leaper was in the earlier In memoriam recording.

Dr Merryheart is a curious work. One of Brian’s most satisfying musical structures married to an introductory note and pro-grammatic section titles of sheer whimsicality. One often senses there may be underlying sly allusions to other music but without being able to grasp the key that would unlock its meaning. There are obvious parallels with some Straussian and Wagnerian situations but the music resolutely refuses to back any of these up with anything as obvious as an unmistakable quotation, which would confirm a satirical intent. I can’t help thinking there is more in it still to be discovered. The Merryheart described in the preface is in some ways a self-portrait of Brian. In the letters we know Brian at least once addressed Bantock as ‘Dear Great Heart’. Was ‘Merryheart’ the other end of this exchange? The performance is excellent, the various episodes well-integrated in the whole with a real rhythmic drive, especially in the closing variation.

Symphony 11 is a work I always remember as longer than it actually is. Within its 25 minutes there is an expansiveness which somehow suggests a symphony lasting about ten minutes more. The relaxed, genial first movement is actually less than seven minutes long in this reading (though Newstone took nearly nine) but because it is relatively uneventful it seems almost timeless, so that both interpretations seem valid. However, I do prefer the new version as it presents less of a dichotomy with the last two movements (shades of the Shostakovich 6 ‘problem’) and my previous slight misgivings about the symphony’s structure on those grounds have now disappeared. In the last few weeks it has also fitted itself clearly into the symphonic sequence in my mind. It lies for me much closer to number 7 (of which there are some vague echoes, especially in the last movement) than to the immediately preceding trio of 8, 9 and 10.

If Brian had ever been asked to compose a coronation march à la Elgar or Walton, then the opening of 15 is probably as close as we will get to having an idea what it might have sounded like. The more one listens to Brian’s symphonies, the more one is amazed that you ever thought any two of them were similar. This symphony opens with its pomp and circumstance, initially reminiscent of the ‘Handelian’ opening to Das Siegeslied, which is then undercut in a wry manner. I had not listened to 15 for some time and I was pleasantly surprised how it had improved in the interim. It is intensely dramatic music, one could almost believe it to comprise the combined preludes to a three-act opera, so clearly does Brian conjure up a precise sound world in each part. It also has one of HB’s most entrancing violin solos in the central slow section (it’s strange how many of his other symphonies also have one of his most entrancing violin solos—he was pretty good at them, it has to be admitted!). The galumphing dance of the final section comes off particularly well, its contrasting episodes very well differentiated within an integrated whole.

Performances and subtlety of recording put this among the very best from Marco Polo and the experience of listening is once again enhanced by authoritative and detailed programme notes from Malcolm MacDonald. Coming back to these works, I have found that this new disc has deepened my appreciation of all four, so no-one need have any doubt about this redeeming the Marco Polo series after the lacklustre Symphony 2.

NL146 © John Grimshaw 1999

Newsletter, NL 146, 1999