Some thoughts on ASD3486 - Ted Heaton
Symphonies 8 in Bb minor and 9 in A minor, Royal Liverpool
Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sir Charles Groves. LP: HMV
(SQ) ASD3486, £4.40 Cassette: TC-ASD 3486 £4.60._
see_ Discography for details
I do not propose to ‘review’ this long-awaited HMV record as this has already been done more than adequately by Malcolm MacDonald in the June 1978 edition of Gramophone, Christopher Norris and Hugh Ottaway in the July editions of Records and Recording and Hi-Fi News and Record Review respectively and Lyndon Jenkins in the 8 July copy of Classical Music Weekly. It was also given the accolade of ‘Record of the Month’ in the June EMG Monthly Letter. The objective of these professional reviewers is to acquaint their readers with their views on the latest releases so that the record buyer is given some basic ideas on interpretation, recording quality and, for music such as this, new to the catalogue, some background information on the composer and his works.
Suffice it to say that the reviewers listed above leave their readers in no doubt that this issue is one to be seriously considered by music lovers and on this basis, the record should be very successful. There were certainly reports of the record having been sold out in some specialist London stores within a few days of issue, which promises well (The August Records and Recording included it in two ‘best-seller’ lists from retail stores) […]
The Gramophone review was published a few days before the record was released, so I had a mixture of preconceived ideas of what to expect. I was particularly influenced by an account of the recording session for No 8, where it was related that the symphony was taped section by section, the orchestra not having seen their parts until that day. Certain notoriously difficult sections had given a few problems which had been overcome by the time the tapes were made. Clearly, the record was to be nearly as much of a triumph for the tape splicer as for the artists concerned, but fortunately, No 8 is a particularly convenient work for this approach. There are several sections separated by a few bars of writing for soloists or small groups of instrumentalists and, perhaps most important of all, the characteristic Brian marking - not so much ‘take a breath’ as ‘hold your breath’, and as we now suspect, ‘splice it here’.
When I eventually bought the record at my local EMI record shop (‘it only came in yesterday afternoon’ gasped the startled assistant as I handed him the cover, eagerly grabbed from amongst the multitude of Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner sleeves in the ‘B’ rack), No 8 was the first side I played when I arrived home that evening. And almost immediately my fears subsided as the opening bars came through. The muted euphonium/tuba figure accompanied by muffled side drums… the quiet chord on the lower strings… the rising horn call… these were the sounds heard by Dr. Robert Simpson in his mind‘s ear when he first read the score in the BBC Music Library so many years ago and which fired his enthusiasm for Brian’s music and his zeal for performances and broadcasts by the BBC.
As the work proceeded, I was conscious of an interpretation which was both carefully attentive to detail and to the shaping of a broad structure and, all in all, a fine performance. Apart from one or two very slight imperfections in intonation on the lower strings, one can find little but high praise for the Liverpool players in this work. The numerous solo passages are very well done; the solo trumpet in Passacaglia 1 is superb and adds a new dimension to this episode. What faults I can find are possibly the responsibility of the recording engineers. Both piano and harp seem remote; the piano tone is particularly disappointing, lacking body - there are five bars in double octaves at the end of the passage beginning at fig 9 which crescendo to ff in an orchestral tutti. Without the score, you may miss the piano completely.
On the other hand, the piano/harp/glockenspiel/first violins episode at fig 37 is beautifully done. The essential Brian markings are punctiliously observed throughout and an extra one added at fig 48 where the solo bassoon enters after a tutti ff; a nice touch. There is no hint that the work was taped in sections and spliced together; a few more rehearsals might have transformed a fine performance into a splendid one and no more need be said than that about what was, after all, a totally unfamiliar work.
Symphony No 9, on the other hand, is now firmly in the Liverpool orchestra1s repertoire, having been played by them in the 1975/76 season, recorded by the BBC in the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, and given at the 27 July 1976 London Prom. The BBC tape was broadcast on 30 March 1977. I was present at the Albert Hall Prom and was very impressed by the powerful performance; the excitement generated by the closing pages of the work was fully reflected in the audience reaction - uproarious, to say the least. Comparing tapes of the two RLPO broadcasts, the Philharmonic Hall performance wins by a small margin, possibly because of their familiar surroundings and without the distractions of the Prom audience.
This new recording of No 9, then, fully reflects that self-assurance born of intimate familiarity with the score which the Liverpool players now have and which they communicate so exuberantly here. Those of us who are familiar with that part of Brian’s output at present available to us are, of course, fully aware of his unorthodox style, particularly the apparently disjointed presentation of a series of ideas. These gel into a symphonic totality only after repeated bearings and study of his works - and how essential are Malcolm MacDonald‘s writings to this end. This symphony is typical, with its strident, sometimes brash first movement, its sad, wistful, often dramatically tragic slow movement, followed by the jubilant finale which reaches its climax in such a magnificent paean of sound. That it was composed at the age of 75 continues to astonish; no loss of mental powers here. This is the creation of a musical intellect in the very fullness of its strength and is given an appropriately strong performance on this record.
These two symphonies possess two other Brian characteristics in abundance. One is a distribution of melodic ideas and motives between all sections of the orchestra, from bass tuba to piccolo and with plenty of percussive activity, tuned and otherwise (But whatever happened to the tubular bells on the closing pages of No 9? They seem to have been swamped by the glockenspiel!) The other is Brian’s almost uncanny facility with orchestral timbre in the bass regions, and it is on this latter point that I have one major criticism to make: the sound of the organ pedal. The instrument used does not sound like a pipe organ and I consider that Brian’s markings surely indicate that a fine quality pipe organ is required. There are only four bars near the end of No 8 scored for organ pedal and both 16 ft and 32 ft pitched pipes are called for, the 16 ft being in unison with the double basses, the 32 ft an octave lower.
In the ninth symphony, Brian is even more explicit. In the slow movement at fig 61 he marks the organ pedal stave ‘open diapasons and reeds 16 and 32 feet’. We know that Brian never forgot his childhood visit to Lichfield Cathedral; he was later an organist at Odd Rode, Cheshire and it must be almost certain (although not mentioned by his biographers) that he attended the many lunch-time organ recitals in the City when he was a journalist with Musical opinion.
He knew exactly what sound his organ registrations would produce and I would suggest that these passages in both symphonies should be seen for what they are - an extension of bass timbre into the lowest region possible. In the passage referred to in the ninth symphony, the bass clarinet, bassoon, contrabassoon and double bass are there to give colour to the thunderous vibrations which should be coming from the organ. Those are near the lower limits of human hearing and of modern high-fidelity sounds, and might have made this a demonstration record. (In his Quarterly retrospect In the August 1978 Gramophone, Robert Layton actually calls the disc just that, obviously not sharing my reservations about the organ pedal, or lack of it.)
We have yet to have the pleasure of hearing Brian’s music impinging on us from the platform of the Royal Festival Hall. The RLPO are regular visitors to London these days, and perhaps their new musical director, Walter Weller, who has expressed an interest in modern British music, will bring us one of these symphonies on a future visit (The Society, in fact, sent Mr Weller complimentary copies of two of the published Musica Viva scores when he took up his new appointment); the RFH organ is, of course, one of the finest instruments anywhere and I am sure that we shall, one day, hear these passages in their true glory and sonority.
Brian’s music is slowly finding its way into the musical life of this country and it is to be hoped that recording organizations will find the resources essential to a continuation of the process. Precisely what the next Brian symphony to be committed to disc will be is a matter of conjecture and anything I say on the subject will simply reflect my personal prejudices - we all have them - but of one thing we can be certain; this latest record is of the very highest artistic and technical quality and deserves every possible commendation to recordbuying music lovers. They will, surely, join with us and shout for more.
NL19 © Ted Heaton 1978
Newsletter, NL 19, 1978