About this Recording
8.557775 - BRIAN: Symphony No. 18 / Violin Concerto / The Jolly Miller
English  German 

Havergal Brian (1876–1972)
Violin Concerto • Symphony No. 18 • The Jolly Miller Overture

At different points in his career Havergal Brian wrote three works which he described as ‘comedy’ overtures”. Each of them, despite the programmatic connotations of their titles, possesses a purely abstract form. Doctor Merryheart (1912) is a set of symphonic charactervariations on an original theme; The Tinker’s Wedding (1948) is a ternary scherzo-and-trio design. The third and last, The Jolly Miller (1962), is a binary form comprising an extended introduction, a theme, and a short series of free variations. The theme itself is one Brian had known since his childhood, and although several of his works allude to the character of English folk-melody, this is the only occasion on which he consciously employed a folk-tune as a thematic subject. The tune, either a Cheshire folk-song or a sixteenthcentury popular song, is sometimes known as The Miller of Dee. Millers have had a poor press in English literature, and the miller of Dee, so far from being jolly, is a regular misanthrope, with his constant refrain ‘I care for nobody, no not I, and nobody cares for me’. Brian once confessed that the words reminded him of two millers he had known as a boy in Staffordshire, who hated each other. There is nothing misanthropic, however, about his little Overture, which he composed in the spring of 1962, at the age of 86, as a present for the family of his daughter Elfreda, while he was working on his Twentieth Symphony. He never heard the work performed. It was first given in November 1974 in the United States by the Main Line Symphony Orchestra of Philadelphia under their conductor Robert Fitzpatrick. Its first English performance took place in Southampton the following month. Both of these were with amateur forces, and the present recording constitutes the Overture’s first professional performance.

After the completion of his Fourth Symphony, Das Siegeslied (Marco Polo 8.223447), in 1933, Havergal Brian embarked on the composition of a similarly largescale Violin Concerto. He himself had learned the violin as a child, and all four of the symphonies he had written up to that point feature important episodes for solo violin, so a concerto was certainly a logical project for him to tackle. He began to sketch it in the spring of 1934, and completed a draft of the entire work in short score on 7th June. Unfortunately his case containing the entire material for the concerto was either lost or stolen during the course of a train journey, in the course of Brian’s work as Assistant Editor of Musical Opinion, and never recovered. Nothing daunted, he set to work again almost immediately: not, it seems, to reconstruct the lost concerto, but to write a second one using the themes he remembered from the first. The short score was finished in November 1934, and the full score on 8th June 1935, a year to the day since the work’s predecessor had disappeared. At first he called this new composition Violin Concerto No. 2, and gave it a title, The Heroic. Later, however, he dropped both numeral and epithet; history knows only a single Havergal Brian Violin Concerto in C major.

All three of the concerto’s movements are centred on C - minor in the first movement, major with a flattened seventh in the slow movement, firmly major in the finale. The structural contrast is equally great. While Symphony No. 4, nominally in C, conforms to no traditional formal patterns and obsessively metamorphoses its material into ever new shapes, the concerto’s movements are spacious architectural designs, two of them clearly related to sonata forms and customary concerto behaviour, with some of the most direct and “tuneful” melodic writing in Brian’s entire output. There is no doubt that the great Romantic concertos, up to and including those of Elgar, served him as a general model.

In resolving the problem of the relationship between the solo instrument and the orchestra Brian’s handling of the orchestra remains fundamentally symphonic. He uses a smaller orchestra than for those first four symphonies, but this still involves triple woodwind, full brass, harp, strings, and much percussion; the scoring is often weighty or very full-textured, and highly contrapuntal. His solution – or perhaps deliberate nonsolution – to the inevitable difficulties of balance is to write a solo part that fights back: a heroic bravura part of extreme difficulty, requiring the powers of a first-rate virtuoso with the big tone of a Kreisler or an Albert Sammons. Although the part is of extreme difficulty, full of cruel octave writing, tricky and unusual passagework, and a taxing use of extremes of the register, it is nevertheless conceived with a profound and intimate knowledge of what the instrument can do if pushed hard enough. The fact that, a few years later, Brian wrote in warm admiration of Schoenberg’s Concerto, a work many violinists then believed unplayable, is sufficient evidence of his attitude to composing for a soloist, but frequently he allows the violin moments of endearing simplicity; his approach can be the reverse of “soloistic”, sometimes blending the violin in unison with the timbres of a large woodwind body.

The concerto begins mediis rebus 3: a single bar of serpentine chromatics on unison strings, and the soloist strikes in with a sweeping descending phrase in octaves, touching off a welter of stormy orchestral polyphony. The various symphonically-metamorphosing motifs (one of them an impressive figure for the violin against sonorous brass chords) accumulate into a lengthy and complex first subject group through which the soloist plots a fervent course. Suddenly the storm is stilled: there appears instead a second subject 4 in the classical G major, and in utter expressive contrast. Almost at once this tender, folksong-like tune with its spare and delicate accompaniment is turned into an expansive and lyrical waltz-like development of itself in compound time, with a tiny, mysterious codetta where the violin spirals up to a stratospheric high E. At this point 5 common time returns and the development section proper starts with angular contrapuntal transformations of the second subject in the orchestra alone, soon joined by the violin with its own pyrotechnics. There follows a grandiloquent tutti 6 developing the various motifs of the first subject; and this paves the way for what is in effect a capricious accompanied cadenza 7. This culminates in a dramatic octave descent, and the coda begins with a reminder of the serpentine figure from the work’s very opening, before the woodwind state a calm, mellifluous Lento theme in rich harmony 8. Though this feels like an entirely new idea, it is in fact a radiant transformation of the salient elements of the once soturbulent first subject. Seraphically the violin takes it up, and reminders of both the first and second subjects are woven into a dreamily romantic discourse before the movement closes with a stern reminder of its opening.

The slow movement, anticipating Shostakovich, is cast as a passacaglia, on a lyrically ruminative eight-bar theme announced by cellos and basses 9, a unified structures that is also a superb demonstration of Brian’s powers of variation. Although the theme establishes the melodic and harmonic background of the ensuing fifteen variations, it is itself continuously varied, appearing not just in the bass but in all the orchestral registers; and the variations themselves expand through canonic overlapping and restless changes of time signature. The first three, relatively orthodox, see the violin taking up and then decorating the theme, but the fourth brings a full-orchestral tutti 10, developed in symphonic style. The violin continues in dialogue with solo flute, increasing in fervour through the next two variations, culminating in a further one for orchestra alone, the movement’s central climax. A sense of exalted lyricism prevails in the ninth variation 11 with its tranquil lapping rhythm, and then the solo line takes on increasing eloquence throughout the tenth and eleventh as it rises to yet another purely orchestral variation, strenuous and contrapuntal, reaching a climax in a resplendent brass version of the theme. The mood returns to one of still serenity 12 with two variations for violin and strings only, the first rhapsodic, the second of extreme simplicity. Flute and harp are added for the fifteenth and last variation, which forms a coda of peaceful intimacy.

The finale begins 13 with the violin’s bold statement of a forthright, striding C major theme with intriguing cross-rhythms. Starting out in 4/4, this almost immediately turns into a dance-like 6/4 and initiates a stream of coruscatingly athletic music that constitutes the movement’s first subject. As the excitement rises, the orchestra insists on going back to the opening idea (as a brass fanfare) and launches into a full-scale tutti development-cum-counterstatement of the first subject before the second subject has even appeared.

When eventually it does 14, in solo violin against pizzicato strings and harp, it proves to have been well worth waiting for, an irresistibly English march tune in E major, which the soloist develops and embellishes with nonchalant good humour. Soon the music withdraws into a hushed, mysterious Lento episode 15, where the soloist, as if in a trance, spins a smooth, high, themeless stream of figuration against a drowsy ostinato in harp, low strings, and muted horns. It emerges from this into a slower development of the second subject, which the orchestra then continues on its own, and leads us up to the concerto’s principal cadenza 16. Largely based on the finale’s opening subject and unaccompanied until its final bars, this contains, appropriately, perhaps the most taxing bravura writing in the entire work. Soloist and orchestra then collaborate in a compressed recapitulation of the first subject 17, the violin rising ever higher in its expressions of elation and finally zooming up to its highest possible C. After which, unusually, the soloist plays no further part in the proceedings: the work ends with the second subject march, finally given a full, triumphant orchestral treatment.

As always Brian’s Violin Concerto had to wait a long time for its first performance, but it found a champion at last in the late Ralph Holmes, who was the soloist in a BBC studio première broadcast on 20th June 1969, with the New Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Stanley Pope. Holmes also recorded a later performance for the BBC and played the concerto in public at St John’s Smith Square, London, in 1979. In all his performances he made some simplifications of Brian’s cruelly taxing solo part, but for the present recording Marat Bisengaliev has restored it exactly as the composer intended.

Brian was by no means as unrealistic or inflexible in his instrumental demands as he is often portrayed, as is illustrated by his Symphony No.18, composed between February and May of 1961, immediately after the completion of Symphony No. 17 (Marco Polo 8.223481). Preparations were in hand at the time for the world première of Brian’s enormous Gothic Symphony (Naxos 8.557418-19), to be conducted by Bryan Fairfax on 24th June that year. Fairfax had asked Brian if any of his symphonies was scored for forces small enough for him to programme with his largely amateur Polyphonia Orchestra. None was, but Brian, unknown to the conductor, set to work to compose a symphony of the required orchestral size. No. 18, dedicated to Bryan Fairfax and the London Wind Music Society (the core performing body for the Gothic première), is thus the only one of the 32 symphonies scored only for double woodwind (the various extras being doubled by the second players). Otherwise the brass complement is standard apart from the absence of a third trumpet, and the percussion body, which is kept very actively employed, is as always at this period. Bryan Fairfax conducted the world première with the Polyphonia Orchestra at St Pancras Town Hall, London, in February 1962, and also directed the first professional performance, a BBC studio recording broadcast in June 1975.

After the series of one-movement Symphonies, Nos. 13-17 of the preceding months, No. 18 signalled a new departure with its three separate movements, classical dimensions, and even suggestions of classical forms, nevertheless modified by the process of continuous development. There is, however, no relaxation of expression. This is a concise, sardonic, driven work whose march-like outer movements enclose a bleak central elegy. Formally speaking, the Allegro moderato first movement 18 is a rather Haydn-like design, an implicit sonata-movement with but one subject. That subject, however, is a hard-bitten, almost Mahlerian march, conceived in a single tempo, growing new extensions at each appearance and stripped ever further down to its skeletal basics as the movement proceeds.

The slow movement 19 is of a kind Brian developed in several of his later symphonies, which gradually takes shape from various neutral, drifting figures in different parts of the orchestra, and is welded into a unified expression of increasing intensity and inevitable direction. The mood is oppressive, tinged with tragedy; the sense of a slow, funereal march emerges in contrast to the fast military march of the previous movement. The music finds individual voices to articulate its grief in a solo viola and a solo flute, but the movement concludes by building up an angry crescendo for the full forces, dominated by brass and percussion.

With something of an emotional jolt, the finale then begins 20 as an exuberant quick march in 3/4 time. Some grotesque and hectic episodes nevertheless darken its jollity, and for a moment it teeters on seriousness as Brian produces a broader 4/4 variation of its main subject in Marcia Lento tempo 21. The Allegro tempo soon reasserts itself, but truculence and scherzando good humour remain intertwined. The angrier mood wins the day in the coda, whose brazen fanfare rhythm brings the proceedings to a precipitate end.

Malcolm MacDonald

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