Symphonia brevis at the Royal Festival Hall

Malcolm MacDonald

Symphonia brevis at the Royal Festival Hall - Malcolm MacDonald The 26 October performance of Brian’s 22nd Symphony, though the first of any Brian work in the nation’s premier concert hall, was in fact the third rendering which this particular symphony has received, and the second in which it has been played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. They gave the world première, under Myer Fredman, in a BBC broadcast of 15 August 1971 (repeated in December 1972), which had been pre-recorded at St John’s Smith Square, on 28 March. Later the Leicestershire Schools’ Symphony Orchestra tackled it, under Laszlo Heltay, for the CBS disc (now deleted): this was recorded at Hove Town Hall on 10 April 1974 (the BBC simultaneously recorded a performance from these sessions, later broadcast on 30 August—my memory tells me that it was practically identical).

The special character and virtues of Sir Charles Groves’s interpretation do, I think, emerge more clearly when set against the background of the others. Timings (even when they are my rough wrist-watch calculations) tell a lot of the story right away—Fredman 9:20, Heltay 9:03, Groves 11:40. Break that down into individual movement timings and we get — Fredman I 4:35, II 4:45; Heltay I 4:40, II 4:23; Groves I 6:17 (!), II 5:23. As these figures show, Heltay’s approach is very close to Fredman’s (though curiously, Fredman always seems slightly faster); Groves is completely different, quite altering the balance between the two movements. I think he is right in this, and ideally the balance could be still further weighted towards the first movement by a somewhat brisker tempo in the second. Groves’s conception of the work is very broad indeed—so much so that some Brian enthusiasts may have felt it on the ponderous side. But (to paraphrase a point I have made in The symphonies of Havergal Brian vol 3) it is difficult to play Brian too slowly, given the amount of detail his scores contain, and very easy to play him too fast. To come back to Fredman and Heltay after Groves is suddenly to feel that their first movements are almost recklessly hurried.

This breadth and deliberation coincided well with the occasion, and the hall. The playing of Brian in the Royal Festival Hall has a symbolic significance, of course, but the real importance is far more practical: it represents the kind of acoustic for which Brian’s orchestral music is actually suited—one which lays bare the lines, rather than swaddling them in the folds of a cathedral-type acoustic (as happened, for instance, in Alexandra Palace). The contrapuntal detail of his scores benefits from a bright, even clinical acoustic, in which every note can be heard—for every note has its function in propelling-the music along. But in this sort of acoustic, too, the playing itself needs to be of the best and most accurate, for any slips are crucially spotlighted.

The prime virtue of this performance, then, was clarity — you really could hear everything that was happening, even in the great polyphonic thicket between figs 15 and 16 in the score. This was especially noticeable in the hall itself, less so—but still impressive—in the simultaneous BBC broadcast, of which I have heard a tape. But the virtues did not end there. It was obvious from bar 3, when the RPO’s clarinets, bassoons, horns, trombones and cellos actually contrived to get their rhythm right (as they didn’t under Fredman; nor did the LSSO), that we were going to bear things we had never hear before. And so we did—the bottom C of the trombone chord at fig 12, for example. Sir Charles is the first conductor properly to observe the marked pause at fig 13, and the meno mosso after it; properly to bring out the important third trumpet line in the bar before fig 19 (completely inaudible in Freedman); to make the cor anglais-horn-cello line at fig 37 stand out as it should: and the first to give a real ff on the attack of each of the four brass chords that conclude the work (Fredman and Heltay apparently played these down to allow the strings’ mordents to sound through; but those were still, to my mind, sufficiently enunciated). For such attention to detail, and the breadth and nobility of the first movement—perhaps not enough of the Ritmico, but bags of the Maestoso Brian asked for—we can only be grateful. The big tutti events, between figs 8 and 10 and from 14 to the end, were especially fine.

There were some blemishes, too. The RPO’s first flute misread his top C in the bar before fig 3 as an A, robbing the line of all pathos; the first oboe—as for Fredman—delayed his entry at two bars before fig 6 until after the fp on the strings’ chord (only Heltay has achieved unanimity here, at the cost of a short, intrusive, pause); strangely, the pizzicato chord at fig 8 was inaudible (perhaps dispensed with? Fredman had it). More pointed playing would have been welcome throughout, and the big tune between figs 18 and 20, though well paced, was sadly short on warmth and passion. In the final bar, the suspended cymbal didn’t ring on as it should, but it was in the later stages of this movement that a bass drum-shaped problem began to make itself felt. I have complained before, and will doubtless complain again, of over-loud percussion playing in performances of Brian symphonies. In fact, the RP0 percussionists were generally discreet (including the optimum three side-drummers, though they did make do with a single set of timpani), but the bass drum was intrusive to the point of irritation, especially during the march which forms the bulk of the symphony’s second movement. To no avail had Brian marked the part, with his customary care, pp, p, mf, rising to f only for four bars in the entire section. Nothing quieter than mf was the order of the day, and the brief climax at fig 26 was so gran cassa’d that, for once, you would have to turn to Fredman or Heltay to find out what was actually going on.

From the start of the movement to two bars after fig 29, indeed, Fredman is probably preferable from the point of view of balance and tempo—Brian again wants Ritmico and a speed appreciably quicker than the previous movement (though it is certainly arguable that Fredman is too fast) Maybe Groves chose his more sedate tempo to enable piccolo and flutes to get round their very tricky passage at fig 29 itself—though the other performances negotiated this successfully at their greater speed; and this time the RPO’s horns, trombones and harp made unduly heavy weather of their contribution at fig 28. From the third bar of fig 29, however, Groves reaped the benefit of his approach. The magical passage from that point to fig 32 was the most magical it has yet sounded (and would have been better yet had the bass drummer been content, like his colleague at the side drum, to obey his pp marking and remain practically inaudible), and Barry Griffiths gave a beautiful account of the violin solo.

After fig 32 Brian marks a meno mosso, followed just before fig 34 by a further Rall. molto—two directions which neither Fredman nor Heltay did much to observe. Groves, notwithstanding his slow main tempo, observed both scrupulously and sensitively, extracting infinitely more meaning out of the score’s page 22 in the process. I would have liked a bigger crescendo in the passionate string unisons up to the middle of the third bar of fig 33, but in all other respects the section was beautifully shaped as a long, pensive wind-down to the very slow but monumental ADAGIO (after all, Brian writes it so, three times, in capitals) which reintroduces the first movement material at fig 35. As a result, Groves’s account of the symphony’s final pages was the most massive and finely-controlled they have yet received.

To praise the conception is not necessarily to praise the quality of sound. As I have inferred above, the orchestral playing in general was efficient rather than inspired or even particularly committed: but an immediate repeat performance (as suggested by Meirion Bowen in The Guardian) might well have improved matters and would not have unduly distended the programme. Myer Fredman, in his 1972 performance, achieved much more pointed and agile playing; but his textures, despite a studio recording, were far less clear, the effect being often of a top line the basis of whose harmonic support remained a matter of guesswork for the listener. Heltay’s disc recording is clearer, but not as clear as Groves, and his non-professional players, though committed, are often physically unequal to the challenges of Brian’s music. An ‘ideal’ performance of the Symphonic brevis—as indeed of any Brian symphony—is clearly some way off: but the 26 October performance went quite some distance to establishing the factors which such an interpretation most take account of.

A further word about tempo. Arnold Schönberg, whom one might have expected to be a fanatic for exactitude in these matters, actually went so far as to propose that there should be such a thing as a ‘first performance tempo’ for most contemporary music, including his own. This tempo might be considerably slower than the composer’s metronomic ideal, but should be chosen to enable the players to get the largest possible proportion of the notes right, and the conductor to obtain correct balance and maximum clarity of texture. Only when these paramount objectives had been achieved could the performers gradually work up the speed in subsequent performances, as familiarity with the music bred greater confidence and dexterity. He himself demonstrated the effectiveness of this concept in Vienna in June 1918 with a historic series of ten public rehearsals of his First chamber symphony—not an ‘atonal’ or serial or even particularly new score but, like Brian 22, a tonal work of considerable contrapuntal density which had yet to receive a completely satisfactory performance.

The 26 October performance of No 22 could, perhaps, represent a ‘first performance tempo’ rendering with most of the virtues that attend such an approach. Would that there were some repeat performances in the offing! — through which the RPO could work up to, let us say, a timing of about I 6:00, II 5:00 (though I can imagine excellent performances both slower and faster than that). It is generally realized by now—even by professional music critics—that Schönberg’s music, be it tonal or ‘atonal’, demands to be listened to with the most exacting attention, for the reasons outlined in Berg’s classic essay Why is Schönberg’s music so difficult to understand? (1924), which takes as its example ten bars of the securely tonal but rigorously polyphonic First string quartet. This degree of attention needs to be extended equally to Havergal Brian, whose artistic aim was never merely to comfort our ears with Elgarian opulence, RVW-style pastoral, Delian chromatic languor or Baxian Celtic twilight. Those content to let music ‘wash over them’ will always find Brian dissatisfying, for his purpose is to engage the mind.

Interestingly enough, the Symphonic brevis displays to me some strong (and presumably wholly coincidental) affinities with the aforementioned Schoenberg Chamber symphony 1, not only in its polyphonic elaboration but in the nature and fluidity of its materials. Both works are dominated by a boldly rising figure, Schönberg’s being his famous chain of perfect fourths (Ex 1a), while fourths both perfect and augmented are the chief intervals of Brian’s figure (Ex 1b) —Brian, though, is far readier to alter his theme’s intervallic content at many junctures throughout the symphony.

Ex 1 to be added

One of Schönberg’s contrasting themes is closely paralleled by the main contrasting idea of Brian’s first movement (Exx 2a & b) , which is also capable of being radically reworked (Ex.2c)

Ex 2 to be added

In both works, the ‘seamless’ contrapuntal flow is partly counterbalanced by less ‘active’ passages in which chordal ideas are built up note by note, the emerging harmony keeping the tonal argument on the move (Ex 3a: Schoenberg;

Ex 3b: Brian—and cf also the wonderful example of this between figs 12 and 13).

Ex 3 to be added

There are, of course, certain further parallels in the highly compressed portmanteau-forms of the two works: but all this is merely to reinforce my point that Brian’s music demands concentration as complete as that customarily afforded by listeners to Schönberg; and that until newspaper critics are prepared to listen with their ears and brains rather than their prejudices, we need not be unduly surprised by the sights that greet our eyes on the review pages. Some of them—and, if you’ll excuse a personal remark, some of you—still don’t really think much of Schönberg, after all. Whereas Brian, as far back as 1931, thought him ‘probably the most accomplished musician living’.

NL 50 / © Malcolm MacDonald 1983

  1. Brian knew much Schönberg (cf Vol 3 ch 25), very likely including the Chamber symphony, although I have found no specific reference to that work in his writings. But the similarities I mention here are of a piece with Brian’s other music, and do not to my mind suggest any direct ‘influence’. The Schönberg was originally composed for 15 solo players, not only for maximum clarity but as another practical concession to the limitations of the average orchestral player of its time (1906). However, the fact that he twice made alternative versions for full symphony orchestra shows that he thought its level of polyphonic involvement quite appropriate for any large orchestra good enough to handle it; and of course his later orchestral compositions are clearly based on the same assumption. ↩︎

Newsletter, NL 50, 1983