Newstone and Mackerras interpretations compared

David Jenkins

Newstone and Mackerras interpretations compared - David Jenkins In this article I should like to set down some thoughts I have had regarding comparisons between Sir Charles Mackerras’s and Harry Newstone’s interpretations of HB’s seventh symphony. It goes without saying that we should be grateful in having two versions of this work (even if only one has been commercially available): most of us would agree that it is one of Brian’s greatest symphonies.

Sir Charles’s reading was made with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in May 1987 following a live performance. This enabled the orchestra to feel its way into the score — a valuable bonus when negotiating an unfamiliar piece. Doubtless this helped establish a feeling for the overall architecture of the piece, and a degree of certainty of execution which could easily have been lost had the work been recorded ‘cold’. By contrast, Harry Newstone’s performance with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was not intended as a ‘renewable’ experience and was recorded as long ago as June 1966 with Brian present at the final rehearsal and performance.

Malcolm MacDonald has outlined in his chapter on Symphony 27 in The Symphonies of Havergal Brian, Vol 2, how Newstone was called in to direct the performance of No 7 following the premature death of Michael Krien, the conductor who was to direct the premiere. Brian might well have bewailed the loss of the ‘unfortunate Michael Krien’ but Newstone’s rendering of the score brought to life a work which apparently never failed to elicit affectionate words from Brian. For his part, Brian felt that Newstone had achieved wonders given the circumstances.

Furthermore, by Malcolm MacDonald’s reckoning, the effect of this performance was to encourage Brian to new heights of achievement in his last years of composition. Therefore the Newstone performance can also be viewed as a ‘document’ of seminal importance in Brian studies. That said, how do these two readings contrast with and illuminate each other; and does Newstone’s performance stand high against Mackerras’s?

A general point should be made at the outset concerning quality of sound. Mackerras benefits from a fine EMI digital recording with a very large dynamic range, whilst the Newstone only exists on a quarter-century-old mono tape. (Also, the playing of the Liverpool orchestra is superior nine times out of ten to the London band, particularly in the brass, though this superiority must have been increased by the opportunity to do retakes and edit.)

So — Mackerras wins hands down in these respects; but here I am much more interested in the interpretative qualities of the conductors, between which legitimate comparisons can still be made.

First movement Allegro moderato

‘Life was full and exciting for him’, Brian wrote in a letter to Malcolm MacDonald apropos_Goethe in connection with this symphony, and ‘full’ and ‘exciting’ are perhaps the keywords to a successful interpretation of the flanking _allegro sections of this movement.

Mackerras’s first percussion stroke is at just the mf Brian requests and no-one could quibble with his tempo for the whole fanfare introduction. However, the crescendo marks over the trumpet writing from three bars after fig 1 go for little. Nor do they in Newstone although he is rather more perspicacious in awakening the work with his emphasis on the first crescendo of the side drums. Of the two, it is Mackerras who brings the greater sense of heaving descent to the molto pesante at fig 3. Having built up a sense of anticipation at the end of it however, in his return to the original Allegro moderato five bars after fig 3 Mackerras lets us down rather, I feel — at least for most of the first allegro section.

He is genial, certainly, and there is a genial insouciance in the music, but in a movement conveying something ‘full and exciting’ this is not enough. Newstone, some untidy playing notwithstanding, conveys the zestful character of the music much more successfully. His tempo, marginally faster than Mackerras’s, still allows him to accommodate Brian’s staccati and emphasis markings. Additionally there is a (slightly) more thorough attempt to encompass Brian’s minute dynamic markings which, if closely observed, give a heightened excitement and urgency to the music. The rhythmic ‘kick’ that Newstone gives to the music at the entries for two bars after fig.6 is indicative of the feeling that he has for the interdependence of the individual parts and the role this plays in the music’s onward surge. Both performances pussyfoot along nicely between figs 7 and 8, though again Newstone’s extra bounce and flexibility are demonstrated by the beautiful shaping of the delightful two bar clarinet solo beginning two bars before fig 8.

Where Mackerras gains in this first Allegro is in its four bar codetta (two bars before and after fig 14). Here Brian marks minim equal to previous crotchet, but as the music broadens in notated values there is a virtual continuation of tempo. Nevertheless Mackerras’s barely perceptible slowing-down for this section, together with his willingness to give the brass their head, invests his reading here with a greater sense of occasion.

It also throws the withdrawn character of the central section into greater relief. These extreme contrasts in Brian’s music should be played for all their worth. The ability of a conductor to realise that there is no absolute vantage point in Brian’s symphonic movements, and that what is valid at one stage in the structure may well be negated in the next, is crucial. Mackerras comprehends this vital point superbly. In fact, Mackerras is consistently more impressive than Newstone throughout this central section. He adheres more scrupulously to Brian’s indication to slow the music up in the bars after fig 18, and he is aided by the sensitive, hushed playing of his orchestra.

With the third section of the movement, the virtues characterizing the two different approaches to the first section tend to prevail. Mackerras has perhaps a little more of the urgency he was lacking in the opening section, but again Newstone’s greater flexibility gives his reading a more winning sense of sparkle. A good example of this is his handling of the fluctuations of tempi between figs 22 and 28. However, at three bars after fig 28, Mackerras brings a more satisfying feeling of sheer weight to the music — much as he is to do at similar rhythmically emphatic moments in the last two movements of the symphony. Sir Charles also brings the movement to a more satisfying conclusion, really allowing the brass to let rip in the five bar C major coda. However, both conductors could have given us a more exciting (and grandiose) experience had they adhered more closely to the crescendi marked over the quaver and semiquaver notation between figs 33 and 34.

Second movement Allegro maestoso ma moderato

I don’t propose to dwell on this first scherzo movement because I feel that Mackerras scores points over Newstone almost all the way through. His basic Allegro maestoso moderato seems just right - fast enough to keep the music going but without robbing it of the ‘maestoso’ . His folk- like episode at fig 37 is much more successfully handled and goes with a wonderfully hazy background from the muted horns.

The breathing space at fig 46 where the central section commences goes for nothing with Newstone (and some kind of punctuation really is desirable here), perhaps because he is attempting to endow his interpretation with an impetus that he failed to establish in the opening section. I don’t wish to imply that Newstone is without his merits in this movement, it is just that (to me) he conveys the proletarian march feel without giving it the almost carnival air that it really requires.

In the return of the Allegro material at fig 52 Mackerras beautifully captures the exhilarating self-confidence in the music; listen to the horns in the bars following 2 after fig 53, for instance. The only point at which I feel Newstone is preferable to Sir Charles is in his rendering of the last five bars with its E bell chiming through the C major chord. Here Newstone imbues the music with a greater sense of atmosphere - Strasbourg cathedral palpably dissolving into the mist, as it were.

Third movement Adagio - Allegro moderato - Adagio

The glowing, misty orchestral colours which conclude the second movement are immediately contradicted by the introductory nine bars of the third movement. Here, the mysterious, slightly sombre hue of the music tells us that a shadow has fallen over the work; we do not recover the brilliance of the first two movements again. Indeed, from this point on, the music frequently looks different on paper.

No points of contention for either conductor in the opening bars. With the arrival of the first Allegro moderato, differences appear. Neither takes undue liberties with tempo or the metronome marking, but I feel that Newstone has the finer feel for the basic pulse, and this pays off handsomely at the end of the scherzo section of this movement, as we shall see. Slightly slower than Mackerras, he achieves a firmer and more insistent 6/8 dance feel to the opening portion. Additionally, he has a better feel for the articulation of parts: the accents on the lower, pizzicato strings beginning five bars after fig 60 anchor the runs and trills an the higher strings more successfully than in the Mackerras, giving these bars (perhaps paradoxically) a greater feeling of unease.

Having set himself up for an impressive interpretation of this second scherzo, why oh why does Newstone take the flute solo that opens the first ‘interlude’ three bars after fig 69 at breakneck speed? Was this with Brian’s sanction? Mackerras takes the solo at a much more legitimate rate. Both conductors are quite acceptable when, a few bars later, the flute announces the crucial theme that is to become the backbone of the movement.

For the second section of the scherzo music there is little to choose between Newstone and Sir Charles. With the second ‘interlude’ (fig 78) Newstone scores with his encouragement of earthy woodwind playing which does not preclude the wonderful richness that Mackerras finds at this point. The real sforzandi that Newstone coaxes from the winds and horns three bars after fig 78 highlight this approach.

Mackerras is more genteel here, finding repose in the music, but a repose lacking the temporarily relaxed muscles suggested by Newstone and which the music ideally needs. Incidentally, Newstone’s timpanist plays the first E in his part at the opening of the second ‘interlude’ as an fff, dropping on the next note to the pp marked in the part. The score is here slightly ambiguous — the fff lies above the end of the first violin part and is immediately followed by the pp clearly assigned to the timpani. Newstone could have misread the fff as a timpani direction, who made the decision if the fff was deliberate? Was it approved by Brian at rehearsal? Whatever the answer (and here I shall no doubt invite castigation) it was an inspired decision to play the E loudly!

The third and last section of scherzo music commencing at fig 81 shows Newstone’s more judicious tempo paying off. He is perhaps less scrupulous than Sir Charles in observing dynamics, and the latter’s way with the percussion is more impressive, but Newstone’s slower, more characterized 6/8 gives the music a greater sense of mounting frustration. Newstone, actually, seems to have perspicaciously built his scherzo music up to the bar of tense silence preceding the ‘slow movement’ with a single inexorable sweep of increasing turmoil. He sees the two ‘interludes’ as much-needed though dangerously insecure, havens of relative peace. But the remorseless scherzo music returns screwing up the tension each time. I find Newstone commands an organic vision of the first half of this movement that Sir Charles only hints at with his smoother reading.

Harry Newstone’s greater insight continues into the ‘slow movement’ — his rendering of the marvellous transition passage is superbly handled. One hears more clearly, despite the limited recording, the flute and oboe writing at two and three bars after fig 84. Newstone also winds down the music immediately preceding the polyphonic passage initiated by divided violas (fig 85) a good deal more effectively than does Sir Charles. The slower (and more suitable) tempo Newstone adopts for the adagio (fig 85) and the continuation of this music into the ‘lullaby’ that ends in the ‘storm’ at Vivo agitato gives this passage a pathos that it lacks in Mackerras’ reading. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that this section is the only part of his performance that could be called perfunctory.

The great vivo agitato outburst, ably managed by both parties, illustrates the positive but different contributions that the two conductors bring to their readings of the quasi-Varèseian tempests that occur here and in the last movement. Mackerras produces more weight in such passages with a stronger initial attack, whilst Newstone finds a more surging quality in them: symptomatic of this is the extra prominence he gives to the harp glissandi. In the present outburst, I do like the clarity of the tuba line in Mackerras’s reading.

Both artists give a ravishing account of the string harmonies following the ‘storm’ (fig 94), though again extra points to Newstone for his better gradation of the flute at the beginning of these. So far in this movement, the balance has been in favour of Newstone, but to my ears at least the excellence of his interpretation somewhat lapses at molto teneramente (one bar before fig 95).

For some reason he suddenly changes gear and ups the tempo. Perhaps he was prompted by the semiquavers in the accompanying parts into feeling that the music should push on and, in a movement that has travelled so far, this is perhaps understandable. But surely the music becomes benedictory and sunlit here? Mackerras sticks to his tempo so that the feeling of benediction is apparent — and Malcolm Stewart’s rhapsodic playing heightens the beauty of the reading. Peace and contentment are paramount here and these are what Mackerras gives us.

With the commencement of the coda (Più lento, fig 98), both conductors employ more-or-less the same tempo, with Newstone obviously having to stage-manage a greater change of speed - greater than perhaps desirable at this point. Mackerras ascent to the final Eb chord is consolatory; Newstone’s more effortful and typically less smooth with the fpp on trombones (fig 98 and following bar) given their full due. Both views are valid. With the last chord and its harmonic clash on harp and glockenspiel, Mackerras, we might feel, is prepared only to hint at the conflicts to come in the final movement, whereas with Newstone we are left poised on the brink of the toughest struggle of all.

Fourth movement ‘Epilogue — once upon a time’ Moderato

In the first bars and the ensuing exchange between brass and strings, it is Mackerras who gives the finer account: the nobility of his brass players’ tone together with closer attention to dynamics ensure this. Why does Newstone change the rhythm in the violins to a dotted one on the third and fourth beats, five bars after fig 103, when it is written as straight crotchets? Was this another amendment sanctioned by Brian? When the music begins to accelerate at fig 106 Mackerras characteristically gives it greater attack, and slowly and very slightly increases the tempo until the music lurches into C minor at two bars after fig 108. The colouring here is impressively dark and the nobility striking.

From fig 106 Newstone takes a more literal view of Brian’s tempo instructions, speeding up until five bars after fig 107: the result, despite some slightly untidy playing, is more electrifying. What he loses in nobility he gains in drama, and there is an altogether greater sense of desperation in the music, When it does plunge into C minor, Newstone is rather nearer Brian’s Lento maestoso: both conductors give us _maestoso_here! Incidentally, I relish the really forced tone on the horns that Mackerras gives us in the bars following fig 111 - exactly as called for in the score.

As the music quietens and effectively broadens at fig 112, Newstone speeds up so that for the remainder of the movement he is taking it at virtually the same speed as Sir Charles. Indeed, from here until one bar after fig 127, ie until near the end of the movement, Brian supplies no specific tempo marking, only indications to speed up or slow down. For long stretches it is up to the conductor to supply his own ‘localized’, fluctuations using changing dynamics, texture, and mood as his guide. But my own guess from looking at the score is that Brian probably intended more of his lento maestoso to predominate, at least to a rather greater extent than it does in these two performances.

This might partially explain the discrepancy between the 18 minutes indicated for this movement in the score and the actual playing times for Mackerras (ten) and Newstone (nine). (This over and above Brian’s penchant for overestimating durations of his works — no reading of this movement at anything like realistic tempi would stretch it to 18 minutes.) Preferences in the stretch of music from fig 112 to the last outburst at fig 126 really boil down to one’s taste, but I go for Newstone where I find more anguish and desperation — this despite Malcolm Stewart’s lovely playing in the violin solo following the cancelling of the C minor key signature.

A t that last outburst, Mackerras gains by providing a clinching fff, but Newstone is more explicit in placing it in thematic context; the drooping two note phrase that has figured in this and the previous movement is more obvious and the result, in dramatic terms, is more harrowing. In the coda too, with its distant side drum taps and drooping woodwind, all depicting a sense of numb weariness, Newstone is the more perceptive. Indeed, if I may be patently subjective in an already subjective article, this whole coda before the major chord at the end suggests TS Eliot’s East Coker, where he wonders:

What was to be the value of the long looked forward to,
Long hoped for calm, the autumnal serenity
And the wisdom of age?

Lastly, like an eye opening out onto a new vista of experience, the A major chord is more telling with Newstone’s sensitive string spacing, despite the too-quiet gong stroke, dissolving the Symphony back into the void from whence the opening percussion tattoo had summoned it.


So where does all this leave us when evaluating these performances, and when able to hear the two conductors’ views of the work in tandem? I think I’d better come clean and state my own preference for Harry Newstone’s interpretation, whilst recognizing that many will disagree with my choice. I know it is rougher and less well-executed than Sir Charles’ reading, but I have already expressed my wish to avoid detailed comparisons of playing and recording.

Sir Charles Mackerras offers us a chance to hear a Brian symphony beautifully played, without any loss to the power of the music. I feel that his is, if you like, a ‘worldly’ interpretation of the work and perhaps the more attractive way in for the newcomer. Most of the time, in terms of notes, nothing is lacking. But it was, I think another exploratory symphonist, Mahler, who claimed that the most important part of a composition does not necessarily lie in the notes per se.

Newstone’s performance beyond the notes seems to plot, with more convincing intensity, the symphony’s ‘youth passing into age’ (despite the relative failure in the rendering of the second movement), offers greater emotional light and shade, and a sense of real anguish at some points in the last two movements. Whilst he doesn’t give us the full picture (and as with all truly great works of art it would be impossible for one man to do that), he does, overall, penetrate to depths beyond those reached by Sir Charles. If the latter presents the Symphony as a poised piece for all its drama, Newstone gives us a tougher, less varnished but, I feel, more revealing experience.

NL 98 / © David Jenkins

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