Review of RLPO/Mackerras premiere

John Pickard

Royal Liverpool PO:Mackerras premiere - John Pickard On 29 April 1987, 40 years after its composition, Havergal Brian’s seventh symphony received its first public performance at the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool. It was the final work in a concert of English curiosities conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras which included his own [highly coloured] arrangement of Handel’s Music for the Royal fireworks and his reconstitution of Sullivan’s severely dehydrated cello concerto, as well as Elgar’s own arrangement for cello of his op 62 Romance for bassoon. Indeed, the Brian was the only work in the programme which was not some sort of arrangement. Such programme planning would normally be the kiss of death for any public concert and it is surely a tribute to the shrewdness of the RLPO management that they engaged the services of Mr Julian Lloyd Webber as a failsafe means of getting a decent sized audience.

It was certainly gratifying to see a more or less full house for the concert and one wonders whether this would have been the case had it taken place on the South Bank — almost certainly not. It has already been pointed out that the wise inclusion of a cello work in each half meant that the Brian could take its rightful place at the end of the programme without giving the faint-hearted a chance to escape at half time. However, this being Liverpool, I am sure that most people would have stayed to get their money’s worth anyway!

There was, nonetheless, an entertaining piece of music-theatre when, during the applause for the Elgar, a small contingent of what one assumes to be the Havergal Brian Deprecation Society staged a very noticeable walkout — simultaneously compensated by the re-entry to one of the boxes of a gentleman with a guide-dog who had stayed outside for the Elgar.

Writing in The Guardian, David Fanning suggested that not only was the audience by now well warmed-up for the Brian but that, after an evening of mainly fairly trivial music, was positively crying out for a drop of the hard stuff. Wishful thinking that, and it fails to pay tribute not only to the cunning, but also the intelligence of the programming. What we had (chronologically) was a graphic account of English music as it had been, what it sank to, what kind of genius was required to get it back on course and, finally, what will be seen as a natural fulfilment of that legacy — a context guaranteed to show the Brian to the best possible effect. Additionally, the Brian was the only work in the programme in which the orchestra seemed to be playing to its full potential.

Brian 7 is a problematic work and seems to me to be unusually ambivalent, even by Brian’s standards. The problem is not so such the unpredictability of its emotional progress but the actual definition of those emotions. For example, the most comprehensible outcome of the optimistic vigour of the symphony’s opening would be some kind of affirmative conclusion. That does not happen. On the other hand, a ‘tragic’ ending would provide another sort of musical archetype (an essentially Romantic one). In either case we would know where we were. The fact is that both of these possibilities are rejected and the work ends, in the words of Malcolm MacDonald: ‘… neither in despair or false optimism; but realistically, with a new question awaiting answer’.

That is all very well, but does an audience want to go home from the Phil asking questions? With Brian’s music, the difficulties are often exacerbated by scrappy performances giving a totally distorted impression of the work. Dense polyphonic invention can sound like turgid rambling, daring orchestral effects like bungling and bizarre experiments and breathtaking tuttis like the blunderbuss confidence of a 9the-rate composer who has just got to the easy bit. Clearly, what was needed was a performance so expert as to allow one to forget that this was only the second ever performance and to break the Catch 22 syndrome which has always affected Brian a music — that of an unknown work, under-rehearsed and badly performed leading to the assumption that it is the composer’s fault and a good reason for its continuing to be unknown. Few would nowadays criticise the idiosyncrasies of, say, Bruckner’s symphonies; we have enough opportunities to hear them well played to know that Bruckner knew what he was about even if his contemporaries did not! On occasions such as this performance one can’t help feeling that Havergal Brian is ‘on probation’.

Happily, what transpired was a radiant performance of what is probably the most luminous of his symphonies. It was certainly the finest public performance yet of any of them. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of it was that the orchestra played as though the work were an established classic and not some minefield to be tentatively picked through. Interestingly, although the instrumental virtuosity of the symphony becomes less overt as it proceeds, it tends to get harder to play. The disembodied scherzo of movement 3 is particularly fiendish — very active music is much harder to play softly — and this required the most rehearsal. Needless to say, there was the odd dodgy entry and the occasional fluffed note, but such was the intensity of the performance that these paled into insignificance. It is a matter for regret that the BBC with its now customary lack of foresight, failed to record the concert for broadcast. There is, of course, the record to look forward to, but the atmosphere of a live performance cannot be captured in the studio.

The danger with a performance prior to a recording is the feeling that it is the record which matters and that the performance is somehow secondary (I heard this opinion expressed in the bar afterwards). It cannot be stressed strongly enough that the priorities should be the other way round. The record will certainly reach a wider audience than any single performance would, but the ultimate aim is that this magnificent symphony should enter the repertoire of very self-respecting orchestra — nothing less. This may sound a trifle over-ambitious but it has happened for Bruckner, Nielsen, and Mahler. All that is required is the opportunity — the music will do the rest. To judge from the very genuine warmth of Liverpool’s audience’s reaction on April 29th, I would suggest that this goal is rather nearer than it was on the 28th.

NL 71 / © John Pickard

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