Reviews of the 1973 Kensington SO/Leslie Head performances

John Falding, Max Loppert

Reviews of the 1973 Kensington SO/Leslie Head performances The Hanley performance, 21 May 1973 (the second of three)
Birmingham Post, on 22 May 1973
by John Falding

I am tempted to say that the playing of the Kensington Symphony Orchestra at this Stoke on Trent Festival event on Sunday did not constitute the best advertisement for the relatively little-known work of Havergal Brian. But on the basis that any publicity is good publicity this large "non-professional"’ orchestra performed a valuable service in bringing Brian’s Symphony no. 2 in E minor into the open again.

At the very least some musical appetites must have been whetted by the vast amount of detail which is obviously present in the score, even if the orchestra was not always successful in presenting it with maximum lucidity. At times the overall effect was decidedly muddy. With such massive forces involved, precision and cohesion are of the utmost importance but neither quality was present in abundance.

Brian calls for a number of exposed wind and brass passages but these were not always played with comfort. Leslie Head, conductor and founder of the orchestra, was able to elicit some fine dynamic contrast realising the drama of the battle scene to the full.

Falding goes on to review the Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale by Berlioz and Festival Prelude by Strauss which were also included in the concert. He finished up by saying that:

It is only fair to mention that the orchestra played this same programme in the Brighton Festival on Saturday night before facing the journey to Stoke.

The London performance, 24 May 1973 (the last of three)
Financial Times, on 25 May 1973
by Max Loppert

How typically British the case of Havergal Brian. Born 1876, died 1972; a composer of large-scale works for more than 60 of those 96 years; from the 1920s to the early 1950s, condemned to almost total neglect of performance and publication; then a slowly growing number of hearings, and claims of honour and greatness for those of his 32 symphonies given. Now after his death, there are plans afoot by devotees and disciples to write about, have performed and generally bring to public awareness, music they believe to be of a major composer.

Some of the aura of adulation which now clings to Brian’s name sounds somewhat like that commonest and most unprepossessing British habit, faced with persistently creative artists: that of driving them with neglect into the position of Underdog so that, dead or of advancing age, they can be hauled out to be Stuck Up For. All the more reason, therefore, to thank conductor Leslie Head and his valiant Kensington Symphony Orchestra for regularly playing the music and so freeing it, and the composer, of misconception, mystique and attendant sentimentality.

Last night it was the first London performance of the Second Symphony finished in 1931. The First had been that most gargantuan of symphonies, The Gothic. This one is, by the earlier work’s side, a smaller thing, in terms of the forces required, of length and breadth. But it, too, has monumental ambitions. There are four movements, superficially in recognisable symphony scheme, but laid out orchestrally and thematically with the utmost originality and grandiosity of intent.

If originality of intent were all, in fact, this would be a masterpiece. I have, unfortunately, to confess that my senses remained obdurately closed to most of the music most of the time. Incoherent symphonic thinking, sludgily rebarbative textures and almost unrelieved torrents of forte and fortissimo, an all-pervading air of Metro-Goldwyn-Megalomania - these judgements may be rash and hastily given after only one hearing (and that without a score). The acoustics of the church must surely have been unhelpful in terms of textural clarity and perspective (the combination of glockenspiel, organ and orchestra in full cry was frankly agonising). The work must have presented the semi-professional orchestra with terrifying problems, some of which - particularly ensemble - sounded only half-solved.

Perhaps Solti and the Chicago Symphony will take up the work and prove me hopelessly wrong. Until then, "Gothic" seems a sub-title equally suited to this symphony - in its other signification, "stressing irregularity and details, usually of a grotesque or horrible nature.

Robin Maconie writing of the same concert in the Daily Telegraph was much more enthusiastic

Inevitably, last night’s memorial concert to Havergal Brian, given by the Kensington Symphony Orchestra under Leslie Head, seemed as much an act of penitence as one of recognition for the neglected composer.

But Brian’s Symphony No. 2 in E minor, which received its first London performance, is a work of the stature that transcends sentimental regret, however timely.

Richard Strauss and Berlioz, two of the composer’s acknowledged influences, were represented by the Festival Prelude and the Symphonie Funebre et Triomphale respectively, but Brian’s symphony, the music of an austere and inquiring intelligence, made Berlioz seem tedious and Strauss unforgivably condescending.

The comparison that springs most readily to mind is in fact Mahler, with whom he shares a loftiness of feeling.

Nevertheless, Brian’s harmonic idiom is unquestionably original and personal and his extraordinary third movement allegro assai, scored for horns, two pianos and timpani, must certainly rank among the most advanced writing of its time.