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Brian: Violin Concerto, Symphony no 13, Tinker's Wedding / McAslan, Brabbins

Brian / Mcaslan / Brabbins
Release Date: 01/08/2013 
Label:  Dutton Laboratories/Vocalion   Catalog #: 7296   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Havergal Brian
Performer:  Lorraine McAslan
Conductor:  Martyn Brabbins
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BRIAN The Tinker’s Wedding. Violin Concerto in C. Symphony No. 13 in C. English Suite No. 4 Martyn Brabbins, cond; Lorraine McAslan, Marat Bisengaliev (vn); Royal Scottish Natl O DUTTON 7296 (71: 57)

We have a couple of Brian rarities here, with the Symphony No. 13 receiving what is claimed as its world premiere on records, and the English Suite No. 4 its first Read more digital recording. Also on hand are two works that supply an excellent introduction to the composer’s musical personality. The comedy overture, The Tinker’s Wedding , was completed in 1948. It was inspired by Synge’s two-act farce of the same name, first performed professionally two years after the tempestuous debut of his far better known The Playboy of the Western World . Brian noted that he wanted to present a musical portrait of the whimsical tinker in question, but the work seems to me a better fit to The Playboy , with its musical wit, violent energy, and sudden, unexpected shift of direction into something more serious that leads off its central trio.

The Violin Concerto was the second Brian composed. The first, completed in 1934 in short score, was supposedly stolen or mislaid on the composer’s daily journey by train between home and work, and he created a new, different piece using the same themes. Brian originally referred to it upon completion in 1935 as his Second Violin Concerto, and gave it the subtitle, “The Heroic”—not because of its character, but in true sardonic fashion due to the difficulty of the violin part. Later, he dropped both the descriptive and the numerical designation. It is in some respects the most accessible of Brian’s large-scale works. The first movement contrasts a stormy, contrapuntally rich, harmonically unstable sequence of interrelated motifs, with a modal pastoral theme of simple beauty; the way these two interact, with a kind of fantasia-like quirkiness, is central to much of Brian’s output. The finale mirrors the first movement in delaying the second theme seemingly forever—and when it appears, we get a nobilimente march that mirrors the pastoral theme of the first movement in its pristine simplicity. The first and final movements are thus in one respect outer panels framing a central passacaglia, whose theme is fragmented across multiple planes, often concurrently, against the repeating bass. It is a fine example of Brian’s variational technique and original orchestral thinking, with a particularly seductive, harmonically elusive version of the theme before its brief, hymn-like coda.

The 13th Symphony was written in late 1959, and inaugurated a period of five one-movement symphonies into the early 1960s. It is a structurally complex work, an introduction and three larger spans of material, though the second seems almost like a continuous variation from the first. Expressively, it wanders through a minatory landscape and its tension is only temporarily relieved by a pair of achingly meditative solos for clarinet and violin. The final section is a grotesque, brilliantly fugal scherzo, a motoric dance of enigmatic character that concludes in a majestic coda on a surprisingly affirmative C-Major chord.

Finally, there’s the English Suite No. 4, subtitled Kindergarten . Composed in the early 1920s, nothing is known of its genesis. The music itself belongs to the category of works for adults about childhood; beyond that, it only teasingly hints at a program. “Jingle” admittedly sounds like a music-box, matched only by Glazunov’s Musical Snuff Box in its imaginative textures, but why is “The Lame Duck” given such a brief and ambiguously expressive march? Is “The Man with a Gun” a child, a toy soldier, or a passerby? And are the strict, two-part imitative textures that form most of the opening piece, “Thank You,” a formula opening to a letter that suddenly turns deeply melancholy? Are the brief waltz figures in one of the lengthiest of these short pieces, “Death of Bunny,” meant as an ironic glance at Sibelius’s Swan of Tuonela ? Brian liked raising questions, but he seemed to prefer his listeners supplying the answers.

This is the second disc from Dutton devoted to the music of Havergal Brian, with Martyn Brabbins at the helm, and utilizing the forces of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. The first was reviewed by both Phillip Scott and myself in Fanfare 35:1, and subsequently formed part of Jeremy Marchant’s 2011 Want List. Scott felt that Brabbins and the Royal Scots did “a magnificent job,” and were “alert to Brian’s every changing mood.” Marchant added that Brabbins “reveals a deep understanding of, and commitment to, the composer,” while I praised conductor and orchestra doing “much to establish the strange but inexplicably right-sounding world of Brian’s music.” The same qualities hold true for this release. Brabbins is ever alive to the composer’s protean changes of expressive and textural character, and his orchestra has all the nuance and color one could wish for in these works.

I’ve not heard the Mackerras/Royal Liverpool Philharmonic recording (currently on EMI 75782) with The Tinker’s Wedding , but did review in Fanfare 29: 3 an earlier recording of the Violin Concerto, featuring Lionel Friend conducting the BBC Scottish SO, with violinist Marat Bisengaliev (Naxos 8.557775). Friend emphasizes the multitonal play of three simultaneous themes, one by soloist, two orchestral, towards the conclusion of the first thematic group’s statement in the opening movement; and he repeatedly strives to bring out competing tonal details in orchestration. Brabbins prefers to focus on the primary thematic line, relegating those other lines and their tonal excursions to a secondary place. His slightly slower reading highlights more areas of competing color, and repeatedly achieves greater rhythmic cohesion. The first appearance of the pastoral theme exemplifies the differences between these two approaches: Brabbins goes from massive, splendidly broad textures to something slight and sleek; Friend from complex, tonal confusion to complete tonal transparency. Brabbins is also slower and more eloquent in the passacaglia, while Friend searches (not that he has to search far) for areas of theatrical discontinuity. In general, Friend makes more of the thornier aspects of Brian’s musical language, and Brabbins emphasizes his continuity, both with earlier musical generations, and with his contemporaries. As with the conductors, so with the violinists: Throughout, Lorraine McAslan is richer of tone, while Marat Bisengaliev is spikier, hitting accents more heavily, and creating greater dynamic contrasts. Neither finds technical terrors in this difficult work, though Dutton has the edge in recorded sound.

If you don’t mind the duplication, each of the two recordings has additional music you won’t find elsewhere. Friend offers the Symphony No. 18, which hasn’t seen light of day on records since I purchased an Aries LP in the late 1970s supposedly featuring “Colin Wilson and the Wales SO,” that was actually Bryan Fairfax leading the New Philharmonia. But if you insist upon one album alone, make it contingent on familiarity with Brian. If you want a violin concerto that emphasizes its composer’s more acerbically distinctive qualities, stick with Friend; otherwise, go with Brabbins. Each has much to offer, and I have no intention of removing Brabbins from my active playlist anytime soon.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
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Works on This Recording

Tinker's Wedding by Havergal Brian
Conductor:  Martyn Brabbins
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1947-1948 
Concerto for Violin in C major by Havergal Brian
Performer:  Lorraine McAslan (Violin)
Conductor:  Martyn Brabbins
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1934-1935 
English Suite no 4 "Kindergarten" by Havergal Brian
Conductor:  Martyn Brabbins
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1921 
Symphony no 13 by Havergal Brian
Conductor:  Martyn Brabbins
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1959 

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