On record: New Philharmonia Orchestra / Sir Charles Groves – Havergal Brian: In Memoriam & Gothic Symphony Part 1 (Heritage Records)

New Philharmonia Orchestra / Sir Charles Groves

Brian
In Memoriam (1910)
Symphony no.1 in D minor, The Gothic (1919-27) – Part One

Heritage Records HTGCD172 [59’31”]
Producer Robert Simpson

Recorded 10 October 1976 in live performances at Royal Albert Hall, London, UK. Released by arrangement with BBC Studios, with funding from the Havergal Brian Society

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The Heritage label renews its archival coverage of Havergal Brian with this disc of works given at the last concert of those centenary events in 1976, including what is still the only professional account of Part One from the Gothic Symphony heard separately, as sanctioned by the composer.

What’s the music like?

Following three concerts at Alexandra Palace, this final one took place at the Royal Albert Hall. even if a planned performance of the Gothic had to be shelved through financial considerations, a second half featuring Berlioz’s arrangement of La Marseillaise and his Symphonie funèbre et triomphale was no easy option. At the helm was Charles Groves who, having recently given the Ninth Symphony at the Proms, proves a Brian interpreter of real perception. Such is evident in his account of the tone poem In Memoriam, among the best of its composer’s earlier works and unheard for almost 55 years. Whether prompted by thoughts as to the end of an era, or by more personal considerations (its initial title having been ‘Homage to an Artist’), the trajectory of its three continuous ‘scenes’ from impulsive vehemence, via searching contemplation, to sustained affirmation is a striking one made more so through the finesse of Brian’s tonal thinking and his resourceful scoring. These are qualities to the fore with Groves’s interpretation, as convincingly shaped as it is eloquently rendered, and most likely the finest that this work has so far received.

If the performance of Part One of the Gothic Symphony is not quite as good, it more than makes the case for this to be heard as an autonomous entity. Tempi are slightly more measured overall than those of Sir Adrian Boult (Testament) or Martyn Brabbins (Hyperion) in their live readings at the same venue, but this enables Groves to wrest unity from the three movements – not least by bringing those extremes of motion and mood of the Allegro into closest accord, while ensuring a cumulative momentum across the whole. The Lento has all the necessary ‘expressiveness and solemnity’, and at a speed flexible enough to contain its volatile progress towards a powerfully rhetorical climax then a lingering postlude. The Vivace more than fulfils its function as a finale: Groves is mindful to integrate the increasingly disjunct scherzo-and-trio episodes, then keeps a firm hold on its explosive central outburst and surreally imagined ‘night flight’, on the way to a peroration of a grandeur intensified by its tonal audacity and afforded pathos in its limpid coda. That the rather bemused applause has not been retained is maybe of no consequence in context.

Does it all work?

Yes, given Brian always did things his way so that his music often pivots between the visionary and the reckless, yet one where he is almost always justified. Certainly, Groves’s In Memoriam is preferable to the well-paced if technically limited account by Geoffrey Heald-Smith with the City of Hull Youth Symphony Orchestra (Cameo Classics), as also the capably played if most often stop-go approach of Adrian Leaper and the National Symphony of Ireland (Naxos). There is no other version of the Gothic’s Part One, in which Groves’s trenchant advocacy vindicates the decision.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. The (unnamed) remastering engineer has done an admirable job of enhancing the BBC sound, not least in minimizing the bronchial audience contribution on that autumn evening now almost 45 years ago, and John Pickard’s booklet notes are a model of reasoned enthusiasm.

For further information on this release, and to purchase, visit the Heritage Records website. Heritage also offer a recording of Brian’s first opera The Tigers here, and the first commercial recordings of the composer’s music here

On record – Martyn Hill, Meriel Dickinson & Peter Dickinson: James Joyce’s Favourite Songs (Heritage)

Chamber Music: Thirty-Two Songs by G. Molyneaux Palmera The Joyce Book: Thirteen Songs, by Moeran, Bax, Roussel, Hughes, Ireland, Sessions, Bliss, Howells, Antheil, Carducci, Goossens, C. W. Orr and van Dierenb

bMeriel Dickinson (mezzo-soprano), aMartyn Hill (tenor), Peter Dickinson (piano)

Heritage HTGCD175 [71’28”]

Producer Jillian M. White
Remastering Engineers John Marsden, Peter Newble

Recorded 7 December 1981, BBC Broadcasting House, London (The Joyce Book); 18 November 1986, St. George’s Brandon Hill (Chamber Music)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Heritage further expands its Peter Dickinson discography with these song-cycles in which he appears as pianist, setting poems from James Joyce’s two collections of verse; both heard in recordings which were first broadcast in the 1980s and now rescued from the BBC archives.

What’s the music like?

The major rediscovery here is an almost complete traversal of Chamber Music by Geoffrey Molyneaux Palmer (1992-1957), English born but long resident in Dublin where he worked as church organist and composer. Despite the author’s enthusiastic endorsement, Palmer was never to finish the project, despite his leaving blank pages for those four poems (Nos. 12, 29, 32 and 33) still awaiting music. Through the tenacity of Myra Teicher Russel, the manuscript was located at Southern Illinois University in 1981 with a studio broadcast on BBC Radio 3 seven years later (preceded, as this author recalls, by a fascinating introduction on the Music Weekly programme). Thanks to the foresight of BBC producer Jillian White, that broadcast was subsequently archived and can finally enjoy a welcome if belated commercial release.

In stylistic terms, Palmer settings are very much ‘turn of the century’ in their melding of an inherently English lyricism with harmonic subtleties redolent of Fauré or early Debussy. As ordered by Joyce’s brother Stanislaus, these 36 poems pursue an ‘innocence to experience’ trajectory via a relationship which is tentatively envisaged before being passionately lived then regretfully abandoned. Throughout the sequence, Palmer is acutely attentive to those flights of fancy with which Joyce opens out his poems’ expressive potency – tailoring his response to the intricacies of the text at hand while running several songs together so as to accentuate cumulative intensity overall. A pity the climactic XXXIII remained unset, but    the composer’s response to the stark seascape of XXXVI yields a suitably plangent close.

Also included is The Joyce Book, 13 settings taken from Joyce’s subsequent collection Pomes Penyeach which was published in Paris in 1927 and accorded musical treatment thanks to the prompting of Irish editor Herbert Hughes. That the resultant settings included two American, a French and an Italian composer confirms the international standing Joyce by then enjoyed; further underlined by the deluxe edition with which this collection was issued in 1933, a year after its public premiere in London. Stylistically the settings are as diverse as the composers represented: among the most distinctive are the lilting wistfulness of Hughes’s She weeps over Rahoon, easeful rapture of Arthur Bliss’s Simples and suffused ecstasy of Bernard van Dieren’s A Prayer on which both this ‘cycle’ and Joyce’s collection reach their close.

Does it all work?

It does, given the expressive consistency of Palmer’s settings as also the diversity of those in the later miscellany. Martyn Hill was among the leading lyric tenors of his generation, with Meriel Dickinson seldom equalled for her conveying of the emotional sense behind the text.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, not least when Peter Dickinson is an insightful accompanist and provides the detailed commentaries, while the sound has come up well in remastering (the latter collection a shade reverberant). Required listening, not only for admirers of Joyce or the English song tradition.

Listen

Buy

You can discover more about this release at the Heritage Records website, where you can also purchase the recording.

Read

You can read about Peter Dickinson at his website