Classical CD Reviews

HAVERGAL BRIAN: Orchestral Music, Vol. Two – BBC Scottish Sym. Orch./ Garry Walker – Toccata Classics

Brian's music is brilliantly orchestrated, tonal and excitingly different.

Published on August 25, 2012

HAVERGAL BRIAN: Orchestral Music, Vol. Two – BBC Scottish Sym. Orch./ Garry Walker – Toccata Classics

HAVERGAL BRIAN: Orchestral Music, Vol. Two: The Tigers: Symphonic Variations; Three Pieces from Turandot; Faust: Night Ride of Faust and Mephistopheles; The Cenci: Preludio tragico; A Turandot Suite – BBC Scottish Sym. Orch./ Garry Walker – Toccata Classics TOCC 0113, 70:53 (Distr. by Allegro) *****:

Havergal Brian (1876-1972) was one of the most prolific of modern composers, yet his music has remained largely unknown. Known late in life, he composed 32 symphonies, some of which were performed, and they have become the entry point for music lovers of the obscure.

Brian’s music is brilliantly orchestrated, tonal and excitingly different. But there doesn’t seem to be a hummable tune anywhere, with a few minor exceptions where he is quoting a melody or himself, yet the music is accessible and always interesting to hear. And the more often heard, the more interesting it becomes.

In addition to his symphonies, he wrote five operas, none of which have ever been staged. Four of these operas contain large sections of non-vocal music which represent  the music on this compact disc. The music performed is from The Tigers (1917-19 and 1927-29), Turandot, Prinzessin von China (1949-51), The Cenci (1951-52) and Faust (1955-56).

Malcolm MacDonald, who wrote copious and informative notes in the disc booklet, said The Tigers, “…is essentially a satire on the shambolic unpreparedness of the British Army in training on the home front, far away from the actual brutal warfare on the other side of the Channel.” Extracted from the opera by the composer, the Symphonic Variations on ‘Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?’ is based on a popular music-hall song from 1908 which was the lament of an Irish girl abandoned in London by her boyfriend.

Turandot was set in German and subtitled a tragi-comic fairytale. Brian’s libretto comes from Freidrich Schiller’s translation of Venetian dramatist Carlo Gozzi’s fable and differs from the more familiar Puccini opera plot. The Three Pieces that Brian chose are from the prelude and opening scenes of the opera. The music is more like Busoni’s Turandot than Puccini’s. MacDonald arranged music from the remaining acts to form A Turandot Suite of six numbers.

The Cenci is Brian’s third opera after the gruesome verse drama by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Brian’s Preludio tragico is almost a symphonic poem. Faust: Night Ride of Faust and Mephistopheles comes from the opera based on Goethe’s Faust Part 1. Brian has a field day with these rich subjects, evoking moods, mysteries, and high drama with his ingenious, coruscating orchestrations.

This Toccata Classics release is in state of the art sound—essential for these scores. The BBC Scottish orchestra is in top flight under the sure baton of Gary Walker, who knows  how to bring the best out of this widely respected orchestra. This disc is exceptional and is highly recommended for sound, music and performances!

—Zan Furtwangler

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