New vistas - Martyn Becker
Comparisons of recordings and performances by Stanley Pope and Lionel Friend
Havergal Brian’s third symphony is rightly considered to be one of the strongest works in his entire output. Indeed, it could be argued that it deserves an important place in the history of the 20th century British symphony. Until now however, it has not been easy to come to appreciate its many merits, for several disparate reasons.
The first, of course, is its lack of performance since its completion in 1932. Brian himself never heard it at all, the premiere not taking place until just over a year after the composer’s death, in January 1974. The second reason concerns the accessibility of this first performance, by the New Philharmonia Orchestra under Stanley Pope. It was pirated by the US Aries label, and attributed to the ‘Wales Symphony Orchestra conducted by Colin Wilson’. Whatever the morals and ethics of this underhand approach, the recording was made available, and gave some listeners at least an idea of the techniques and sonorities that Brian was developing in his orchestral music of the early 1930s.
The third reason is the Third Symphony’s lack of public performance: it has been given twice in public only. This shameful neglect was somewhat ameliorated by the fact that the 1987 public performance in Birmingham Town Hall was followed 18 months later by the BBC recording at Maida Vale. The differences of circumstances concerning these two performances are interesting in themselves.
Paul Venn’s reading with a scratch orchestra in Birmingham was unfortunately, due to lack of rehearsal time, not so much a performance as a play-through, although the pitifully small audience (comprised mostly of HBS members!) was delighted to hear the work in public. Lionel Friend’s account of the Symphony with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in October 1988 was a different kettle of fish entirely. Well-rehearsed as it was, the performance was a huge success. The invited audience must have sensed something special, because they turned out in droves to provide reputedly the largest audience ever for a Maida Vale BBC invitation concert.
Why all this interest in the Brian third? Well of course, the Hyperion recording made immediately following the Maida Vale concert is now freely available, and as a self-confessed addict to this work, it seemed the right time to draw first impressions and comparisons between it and Stanley Pope’s first performance. With Lionel Friend’s public performance fresh in mind, and with the rapid appearance of the CD, the materials were all to hand.
As I said before, there is no performing tradition associated with this symphony (or indeed few other of Brian’s works), so there could be no ‘expectation’ of interpretation. Indeed, it is hard to think of a yardstick one could use. Actually, this is refreshing in a way because it enables the listener to approach his task untainted by pre-formed views. Impressions of a recorded performance can be assessed in a single span, but comparisons between the new recording of the third and the Pope performance have to be split into three: recording, performance and interpretation. The first two can be dealt with in fairly short order, leaving the interpretation to be pondered.
Before the October 1988 performance in Studio 1 at Maida Vale, Roger Wright (the then manager of the BBC Symphony) introduced the Third by saying that it was the second time that it would be played in that studio, the first being the Pope performance in 1974! With that in mind, and also taking into account the dry acoustic of Studio 1, a comparison of the two recordings as recordings was doubly valid.
From the outset, there can be no doubt that the Hyperion is in a different league from the fuzzy, muffled, Aries pirate, and comparisons of the interpretations have to be made against this background. This is as it should be, because a commercial recording is usually under more control of its engineers than is a radio performance. Also, the actual tape used by Aries is of unknown (and questionable) provenance, as against the authorised, up-to-the-minute digital master for Hyperion. Aside from this, there are aspects of the way the symphony comes across under the two conductors which highlight differences between the performances, but more of this anon.
By performance I mean actual physical execution by the orchestra, and it is here that noticeable differences emerge. Whether or not it was due to a lack of rehearsal time, the ensemble of the New Philharmonia for Stanley Pope sometimes leaves a lot to be desired, especially in the first and third movements. The public performance by the BBCSO was much superior to this, a fact emphasized by the technically polished performance given by them on the Hyperion recording. Paradoxically however, and in spite of the sometimes questionable ensemble and intonation, the Pope performance does generate a sense of impetus, especially in the first movement, which occasionally outdoes Friend.
The overall length of the third symphony differs somewhat in the three versions. Friend’s public performance got through the work in under 53 minutes, whereas his recording takes a little over 55. Pope comes somewhere between the two. How the movements vary within themselves between the interpretations is a very interesting topic which is worth commenting on in slightly more detail.
The basic pulse of the music is very similar under both conductors, although Friend was a little quicker in the live performance. The slight slowing in the recording does nothing to detract from the flow of the music, however. Rhythmically, this movement is a minefield, which Friend crosses with a sense of surefootedness. Pope also has the endpoint of this movement firmly in view, and it is only the orchestral playing which robs his interpretation of the last degree of its ultimate dogged momentum.
Friend and the BBCSO produce a thoughtful, integrated performance, with a splendid dissonance to the last climax before the movement’s ‘cadenza’. At this point, Pope’s piano soloists (David Wilde and Ronald Stevenson) create a starkness in the fourfold declamation that is not quite matched by Friend’s forces. The latter’s broadening of tempo in the coda is convincing, although it is Pope who creates the greater impact at the movement’s end. An honourable draw then; so far.
Friend’s interpretation of the third here develops a character all of its own. Whereas Pope (not helped by the recording) appears to lose his direction a little, Friend knows exactly what he wants, and succeeds in getting it from his orchestra. There is splendid solo work in this movement from leader Bela Dekany, and also the principal flute and trumpet. The latter sounds forlorn indeed towards the end of the movement, in a manner unlike anything else Brian produced: it is almost Baxian. The underlying motion of the music is fluid, and the climax to the movement is quite superb, the BBC Symphony Orchestra basking in the radiance of the writing.
The Scherzo bursts in brightly enough in both performances, but even though Pope’s tempo is marginally slower, his forces let him down again with ensemble. Friend’s BBC wind players get their fingers around it (just!) and the tempo seems right, in spite of my first impressions on hearing this work initially some years ago when I thought a slower speed would work. Conversely, haring after the tempo indication in the score (as Paul Venn did in Birmingham) would do no good here, as Brian must surely have realised had he heard the Symphony performed. The quality of the Hyperion recording allows the orchestral detail to emerge as it had done in the concert, the third movement seeming much happier alongside the slow movement in Friend’s reading. The Trio is relaxed and delightful under him, the recording being well up to the subtlety produced by the orchestra.
What was a little episodic in Pope’s performance has more of an organically integrated feel with Friend in this movement, especially as corresponding to the feeling of the second movement. A noticeable difference between the two performances comes with the timpani solo after the distant trumpet and horn calls. The gradual crescendo with Friend (marked in the sketches but not in the full score) seems much more natural than the corresponding quiet passage under Pope.
Ultimately, the coda crashes in, and here I have a little niggle: couldn’t Friend have persuaded his percussionist to make the tam-tam ‘speak’ a little more in the final bars? Pope managed it, and the effect in his performance is marvellous. Even so, and allowing for the thin sound of the Maida Vale organ at full stretch, the closing bars under Friend do indeed satisfy, and I for one am extremely grateful for the opportunity to hear this wonderful Symphony in a recording which does the music true justice.
It is invidious and indeed improper in this case to single out a ‘winner’ in what is actually a one-horse race, for the Pope performance was never mounted with the intention of propagating it for repeated listening at home. The Pope reading, far from being disposable now that the new recording has come along, still serves to provide a valid alternative viewpoint on this symphony. There will be time enough to be blasé about interpretative approach when there are three or four Brian symphony cycle recordings on the go at one time, as there are currently with Vaughan Williams. Suffice at to say that Brian’s third is now accessible in a performance and recording which do it full justice, and I for one am more than pleased with that.
NL 83 / © Martyn Becker 1989
Newsletter, NL 83, 1989