Notes and Editorial Reviews
Variations on “Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?” Turandot:
3 Pieces; Suite.
Night Ride of Faust and Mephistopheles. The Cenci:
Garry Walker, cond; BBC Scottish SO
TOCCATA 0113 (70:53)
A few weeks back, with my mind in idle, I considered what opera I would like to see if I had my choice of one I’d never seen. Limiting matters strictly to the extant (so no lost work like Monteverdi’s
style="font-style:italic">Le nozze d’Enea in Lavinia
, and no aborted one like Verdi’s
), I ultimately decided on Havergal Brian’s
Turandot, Prinzessin von China
. Not because it’s necessarily better than several others I want to observe but probably never will, but because Brian’s musical language was inimitable. I certainly wouldn’t turn down an opportunity to watch Berwald’s
Drottningen av Golconda
or Paul Constantinescu’s
O Noapte Furtunoasa
, but I at least have CDs of both, and have never listened to a Brian opera. On the basis of this album offering rarely heard orchestral excerpts from his operatic works, the omission is one I regret even more.
My interest in Brian’s
dates back to a detailed comparative broadcast many years ago on my Dallas opera program of the
by Busoni and Puccini. At that time, I regrettably could find no recordings of anything from Brian’s opera. Here we have the composer’s own arrangement of
Three Pieces from Turandot
, deriving from its act I prelude and two sections of dialog between Kalaf and Barak; plus a six-movement suite created by Malcolm MacDonald (who also wrote the typically astute liner notes for this release) from the two remaining acts. MacDonald suggests that Brian’s music is more English and German, whereas Busoni’s is Italianate, but I suppose if I had to compare these
excerpts to anything, it would be Hindemith’s
. Not that Brian sounds like Hindemith. No English composer has ever possessed a more distinctive musical personality, but there’s an appreciation in both works for grotesquerie, the transmutation of a distant culture’s ordinariness into the stuff of legend and myth, with a leavening of satire. MacDonald’s
A Turnadot Suite
is less chromatic, clearer in texture, because as he describes it, acts II and III of Brian’s work are as well, and they furnished the source for his musical excerpts. Notable is the composer’s penchant for sudden shifts of character in “At the Court of the Emperor Altoum,” and the cleverness and polyphonic procedures of the “Entrance of Princess Turandot and her Retinue.” But the most impressive pieces are the final pair: “To the Divan!” and “Lugubre-Marsch,” with their arcane majesty, sharpening intensity, and glints of grim humor.
For the rest, in one notable instance the album’s title,
Orchestral Music from the Operas
, is far too modest.
Symphonic Variations on “Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?”
is significantly more ambitious and accomplished than the usual lollipop, to use Beecham’s old term. It is, if anything, more like performing the
Don Juan in Hell
scene separately from Shaw’s play
Man and Superman
: a perfectly proportioned, intensely reasoned composition in its own right that just happens to have originated as part of a much larger one, the satirical opera
(1917–19). Brian lived and breathed variational form, as anyone knows who is familiar with his symphonies, and these variations supply transformative brilliance, mordant humor, and a dry-witted subtlety very typical of the composer. The work is major Brian of its period, and would make a good introduction to his music for the average concertgoer.
(1951–52) provides us with an overture once again in the composer’s transformative vein, with themes of marked contrast and theatrical character signifying Shelley’s vile Count Francesco Cenci, his daughter Beatrice, and a variety of scenes from the opera. It lacks what most listeners would conceive of as a singular and necessarily tragic character, but Brian’s ear for color and his ability to handle complex but concise structures were never more acute.
(1955–1956) comes the final work on the program: a relatively short piece of magical steeds rising to a gallop, against a tenuous, vaguely ominous background. Largely athematic, it is a study in textures and counterpoint, rhythm and tension, as brilliant an example of Brian’s art in its way as any in his oeuvre.
I wrote in reviewing the first volume by Toccata Classics of Brian’s orchestral music that Garry Walker “is alive to the fluid pacing these pieces require,” and that is equally true here. His ability to manage the abrupt changes of tempo, meter, texture, and mood in this music are much to his credit, while the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra responds with a tone that is second to none for intrinsic beauty or blend—and Brian’s music relies upon such craftsmanship to make its effect. None of this is anywhere more apparent than in the nine
selections, which provide a lighter but equally testing environment, in their way, to the symphonies.
With excellent sound, this is a must for anyone who admires Brian’s music.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
Works on This Recording
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