A view from the back desks

David Hackbridge Johnson

A view from the back desks - David Hackbridge Johnson On Sunday the 6th September 1998, I was lucky enough to take part in the workshop performance of Havergal Brian’s Symphony no 2 organised by The Purely for Pleasure Orchestra conducted by Mark Fitzgerald. I had been accepted into the first violin section, and a few days before the session the part duly arrived. I spent some time checking it through and providing a few fingerings for guidance in the trickier passages. There are many of these, and it has to be said that Brian does not write particularly gratefully for strings. Some passages seem pianistically conceived and the frequent divisi sections are not clearly marked. He also has an irritating habit of providing rehearsal figures that don’t correspond to the structure of the phrases or paragraphs of the music. This wasted time in the rehearsal as there was much counting back or forwards to find a logical place to rehearse from. (It also makes it easy to miscount, especially in the scherzo.) These are all problems that stem from the full score - but more on the copying of the actual parts later on.
On the day I soon discovered that here was a rare opportunity to experience the composer from the inside. The Brian orchestral world is one of extreme contrasts, and it was fascinating to hear how he can switch from the most delicate of chamber textures to the roaring fortissimo of full brass in the blink of an eye. This might apply to the perceived moods conjured by the listener. Intense chromatic soul searching among the lower strings and bassoons might soon evaporate into the utter delicacy of flutes and harp. Promising lyrical ideas are suddenly snatched off by angry trombone interruptions.

None of this is new to anyone familiar with his later style but it was interesting to see this same technique in operation in a work of 50 minutes, where the composer might have felt able to expand his ideas more freely. This clearly was not Brian’s way and I for one immediately began to think of those passages in the Gothic where the ideas seem to almost tumble over one another in a torrent of inspiration. There can’t be many works of one to two hours that actually feel short as a result of this ultra-condensed approach. Thus it proved with the 2nd.

Although the rehearsals were intense and gave the impression of a rather heavy-going work, once the performance started it became apparent that one was caught up in the workings of a mind possessed of great momentum. At the end there were many smiles of satisfaction at the scale of the achievement; both of the composer, and the ability of the orchestra to bring off a really respectable reading in just one day. The 18 horns who barked their calls to arms across the hall during the scherzo might have felt especially pleased - not least because some of them had taken up the instrument a few years ago with the express purpose of tackling this very piece. All but seven of the horns returned to the ranks of the string section for the other movements!
Now to the actual parts. Having consulted with Tony Rowe, Mark Fitzgerald and the Purely For Pleasure event organiser Patsy Moore, I discovered that the parts used in Russia (and which had required extensive correcting during the recording session) had not been retained upon their return to UMP - thus losing all benefits of these vital alterations. Mark and Patsy had no alternative but to go through every part in the two weeks leading up to the event. I myself found three further errors in my study of the 1st violin part. Many other errors were spotted during the course of the rehearsal. These included wrong notes, wrong transpositions, omissions, miscalculated rest blocks and other errors. Mark Henegar who had appeared with a full score in order to enjoy following the work’s progress, found himself rushing round the orchestra dealing with queries as they occurred. All this wasted precious time that should have been spent on our familiarisation with this little known and difficult score. Only devoted Brianites could have failed to feel irritation, and it does little to promote considered judgements of the composer.

I was relieved to see how the musicians seemed to take this all in some humour, and given their determination to do this work this perhaps isn’t surprising; but it is all to easy to see how a hard working professional orchestra might feel less happy having to cope with these difficulties given the busy schedules most of them adhere to. One can only hope that UMP will take advantage of the gratis proof-reading job undertaken by Mark and Patsy, and incorporate the alterations into any subsequent sets of parts that are sent out. One must also feel sympathy with Tony Rowe who had so little time for his correcting of the parts in Moscow; indeed there are still errors that made their way undiscovered onto the recording (there are no prizes for spotting these by the way), which is a shame and doesn’t help anyone’s reputation, least of all Brian’s.

Anyway - enough moaning about the performance materials, for in the end a very challenging and enjoyable day was had by all, and the organisers are to be congratulated on such an exciting choice of repertoire. There are already rumours that Gliere’s 3rd and Brian’s 16th might appear in future workshops.

Thanks to event organiser Patsy Moore for additional information.

A view from the audience of this concert appears here