The LSSO Havergal Brian recordings

 

The Havergal Brian Unicorn (1972) and CBS (1974) recordings are available again on a double CD set issued by Heritage Records in superb remastered sound taken from the original master tapes.

Here are the details:

The Havergal Brian recordings on CD

 

 

Copies of press articles and reviews relating to the original recording sessions and LP record releases can be downloaded as a pdf file from here: The LSSO Havergal Brian recordings

 

The Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra secured its own place in musical history when it made the very first commercial recordings of Havergal Brian's music for the Unicorn and CBS labels in 1972 and 1974 respectively. To understand how these recordings actually came about it's probably a good starting point to refer to a couple of press articles that appeared in the local and national newspapers at the time.

 

Leicester Mercury, 1972

County schools orchestra to make first recording of Composer's work

 

The Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra, with their conductor, Eric Pinkett, are to have the distinction of making the first gramophone record of music by the 96-year-old British composer Havergal Brian. Rehearsals are already under way and the recording will be done at the De Montfort Hall, Leicester, next July. The chosen works are the 10th and 21st symphonies and the record issued by Unicorn records is expected to be on sale by the following autumn. Havergal Brian, born in Staffordshire and now living in Shoreham, Sussex, has become something of a legend in the musical world as a composer who is hardly ever performed but who nevertheless has worked quietly and contentedly over the years to amass an output that includes 32 symphonies (including the two hour long Gothic) five operas, concertos for violin and cello and numerous choral works and songs. The fact that much of his music demands large forces is an economical reason for its rare appearances in concert halls and for the complete absence of recordings. However, he does have determined champions - among them Dr. Robert Simpson (A member of the BBC's music staff) who was mainly responsible for some recent broadcasts of Brian's works, and Alan Watkins, Press Association's deputy news editor and a music enthusiast with early training as a timpanist and percussionist. The recording project really all started from the time when Alan Watkins listened to the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra's existing discs. He was greatly impressed by the standard of playing and was struck by the thought that here was the solution to the economical problems of giving permanence to some of Brian's music. He wrote to the composer outlining the idea and obtained permission to explore possibilities. Within a short time, Mr. Watkins arranged a meeting between John Goldsmith (director of Unicorn records), Eric Pinkett and Dr. Simpson. The outcome was a wholehearted and enthusiastic decision to go ahead and the chosen works on Dr. Simpson's recommendation were the 10th and 21st symphonies both of about 30 minutes duration and for which orchestral parts for the 100 instrumentalists were available. Dr. Simpson, who is the foremost authority on Havergal Brian's music, has since spent a day at the County School of Music at Birstall where he talked to the Schools Orchestra about the composer and the two symphonies and listened to them being rehearsed by Eric Pinkett. He was delighted with their progress and reported favourably to Havergal Brian.

 

Sunday Express, 1972

 

Havergal Brian, Britain's most prolific but possibly least-performed classical composer, is to have his music recorded for the first time at the age of 95. Paradoxically the disc will be cut by our top youth orchestra, the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra. Mr. Brian, described by BBC music expert Dr. Robert Simpson as a composer of the stature of Elgar is one of music's great enigmas. He has written 32 symphonies, more than three times as many as Beethoven, five operas, 114 songs, not to mention choral works. Yet until now none of them has been recorded. Says the composer from his seaside home at Shoreham, Sussex: "I am absolutely delighted that these young people are to record two of my symphonies. It shows how good they are. They are not easy works to play."

 

Symphonies Nos.10 and 21, conducted by James Loughran and Eric Pinkett respectively, were recorded at the De Montfort Hall, Leicester in 1972. The producer was Robert Simpson and Angus McKenzie was the recording engineer. The LP was released by Unicorn Records to great critical acclaim in 1973. A special edition of the television programme Aquarius called The Unknown Warrior gave considerable coverage to the recording session and a camera crew also joined members of the orchestra during a visit they made to the composer's home in Shoreham-by-Sea.

The complete television programme can be viewed here in three parts:

The Unknown Warrior part 1

The Unknown Warrior part 2

The Unknown Warrior part 3

 

Alan Watkins, who was a prime mover in making the Unicorn recordings actually happen, made the following four comments on the GMG Classical Music Havergal Brian forum in 2006. They provide an excellent insight into the recording sessions and also the difficulties encountered by the orchestra when they worked from the less than accurate printed parts.

 

1) The world premiere recordings of ANY music by Havergal Brian were symphonies 10/21 for Unicorn, played by the Leicestershire Schools Symphony conducted by Eric Pinkett and Jimmy Loughran from the Halle. I know that because it was my idea and I organised it in conjunction with John Goldsmith, then the founder and owner of Unicorn Records, and Bob Simpson, composer and (at the time) BBC Music Department and Brian enthusiast. Several times I flew in from Prague to help and coach the percussion section in this very difficult music. It was recorded in the De Montfort Hall, Leicester, with me at one time standing behind the timpanist (a young lady of about 14/15 or so I think) to help her with the very difficult counting in case she came unstuck (She didn't).

Correction by JW: the young lady Alan mentions was in fact the xylophone player, Corinne Bradly. The timpanist in the 1972 LSSO recording session was Stephen Whittaker who, some years later, played the xylophone solo in the Schmidt/LSO performance of the Gothic Symphony in the Royal Albert Hall.

 

2) The world premiere recordings of 10/21 or anything of Brian were by the kids of the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra (ages 14-18) who, on vinyl, were the first in the world to bring any of this music to life. I have previously posted on this and how we took the orchestra to meet the composer. The 10/21 recording is not perfect. There are certainly intonation problems (particularly with the strings) but this is often immensely difficult music to play, even for professional musicians, let alone a bunch of kids at school. They played so well, however, that I was in tears from time to time. One of the most moving moments of my life was seeing the orchestra meet the composer, sitting in a great semi circle around him, firing questions and chatting very happily with him. It was such a memorable occasion. They loved him and he loved them and I feel sure it would have brought more meaning to his music and to their playing.

 

3) The choice of symphony 10/21 (by Bob) was partly dictated by the fact that the parts for same were available and vaguely readable but only just with no cues and very poor page turns for some of the orchestra (wind in particular). I went through the percussion parts of both and ended up rewriting the set of parts for both inserting cues and correcting (twice) inaccurate rest indications and in 21 restoring a xylophone part that was correct in the full score but completely missing in the parts. Many wrong notes in the parts for tuned percussion in both symphonies. A mess, in fact. At that time all the parts were hand written, i.e not engraved.

 

4) It was a very long time ago and I cannot say accurately for certain but I don't think the composer wrote out for the parts for Symphony 10/21. His hand written notation that I have seen is difficult to follow - very difficult in some cases - and these parts were "well written" in terms of the calligraphy as it were but terribly inaccurate. It might have been him but, if so, he was at great age and they simply got corrected for him. I personally do not think it was him because I think he would not have made the page turn mistakes (particularly for wind and strings) nor left out an entire xylophone part (an instrument that mattered to him).

 

As a former member of the LSSO and having read with interest these Havergal Brian forum comments I decided to upload The Unknown Warrior video onto Youtube and was immediately struck by the level of interest this created. This gave rise to one particular email exchange with J.Z. (Johan) Herrenberg, a member of the Havergal Brian Society, in October 2007 as follows:

 

Absolutely incredible, being able to see this at last (i.e.The Unknown Warrior video), 30 years after discovering this great composer! Very moving. And in particular seeing the opening of the Tenth played (an opening that made an indelible impression when I heard it for the first time) is really wonderful. It's great the documentary is still extant. This recording (10 & 21) has been extremely important to me personally. In 1980 I started studying English at the Free University in Amsterdam, a bit reluctantly, as I was determined to become a writer, and eventually I stopped coming. A friend of mine was living in digs in the 17th-century canal ring area. His mother had found Brian's 10th & 21st in a local library in the east of the country, and ever since hearing the Tenth I had become completely obsessed by it. So I called at my friend's lodgings every other day, and if he was in my only request was - 'I want to hear the Tenth!'

 

The Unicorn record was released in May 1973 and received some very positive reviews, especially one from Calum MacDonald in Records and Recording. He was bowled over by the 10th but slightly more critical of the 21st. The reviewer put his cards firmly on the table, however, when he claimed:

“.....this is about the most important issue of 1973.”

The icing on the cake was a tremendous review from the E.M.G. monthly newsletter:

 

Leicester Mercury, December 1973

Distinction for LSSO

 

It is quite an accolade to get into the Best Records of the Year, a list published annually by E.M.G. in its monthly letter, so there is a look of the cat licking the cream on the faces of the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra. Their record is of Brian's Symphonies Nos. 10 and 21 and is one of the 60 selected out of thousands produced during the year 1973. In case you may never have heard of the composer Brian the Briton, you need feel no shame for he has been woefully neglected and this is the first recording of any music by one of this country's most remarkable composers. Havergal Brian died last year at the fine old age of 96. He wrote 32 symphonies and five operas. The review of the record says: "Brian's music is among the most original to have been written in this century and it is doubly exciting and satisfying to hear the verve with which this remarkable youth orchestra attacks the formidable task set by these two difficult but very rewarding scores."

Symphony No. 21 was composed when Brian was 87 and was one of 22 symphonies he wrote after the age of 80. Late flowering if you like! And pleasant to record that in this triumph of youth and age, Leicestershire has played a significant part.

 

Following the success of the Unicorn issue, a second Brian album was recorded by the LSSO for the CBS label in 1974.

 

Leicester Mercury, April 1974

LSSO puts four more works on record

 

The Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra will be in Brighton tomorrow to make two recordings simultaneously. The BBC and CBS Records will each have a control room to tape performances of Havergal Brian's setting of the 23rd Psalm and his 22nd Symphony and also of Berlioz's "Resurrexit" and his "Death of Orpheus". All this music is being recorded for the first time - the BBC's tape for eventual Radio 3 broadcast and CBS's for processing into a disc which it is expected will be issued in the autumn. The conductor for all four works is Laszlo Heltay and the choir is the Brighton Festival Chorus, which Heltay directs. The LSSO was first in the field in making an LP of Havergal Brian's music with their brisk-selling disc of the 10th and 21st Symphonies, conducted respectively by the Halle's James Loughran and the orchestra's permanent director, Eric Pinkett who is Leicestershire's music adviser and founder of the County School of Music. Once again, the BBC's Robert Simpson (stalwart champion of Brian's music) is concerned with production and he is responsible too for performances of the two Berlioz rarities. Brian died, it will remembered, without ever hearing the very first record of his music and it is interesting that following the LSSO's disc there is a projected one or other of the composer's symphonies by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

 

Hove Town Hall was the venue for the 22nd Symphony and the 23rd Psalm sessions where the orchestra was conducted by Laszlo Heltay. Eric Pinkett completed the disc with his account of the English Suite No.5 (Rustic Scenes) which was set down at Leicester’s De Montfort Hall. The recording sessions were produced by Robert Simpson (Hove) and William Robson (Leicester) and the disc was issued by CBS in February 1975.

 

Many years later, the Unicorn recording was finally reissued on CD in somewhat dry, unflattering and desiccated sound. After its initial release the CBS recording disappeared from sight and it was only in 2013 that the master tapes were finally discovered in the Sony archives. This enabled Heritage records to launch its double CD set of the Unicorn and CBS sessions. These are famous recordings of historical significance and are a welcome addition to the CD catalogue. 

 

Here is a review from MusicWeb International

 

Havergal BRIAN (1876-1972)

The First Commercial Recordings

Symphony No.10* [18:07]; Symphony No.21 [29:08]; Symphony No.22 (Symphonia Brevis)** [9:10]; Psalm 23** [15:47]; English Suite No.5 (Rustic Scenes) [22:28]

Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra conducted by

James Loughran*, Laszlo Heltay** and Eric Pinkett

with Paul Taylor (tenor) and the Brighton Festival Chorus (Psalm 23).

rec. 18-19 July 1972 and June 1974, De Montfort Hall, Leicester; Hove Town Hall, 10 April 1974.
HERITAGE HTGDC 256/7 2 CDs [95:02]

 

This Heritage release restores to the catalogue the first commercial recordings ever made of Havergal Brian’s music and for its historic significance alone the 2 CD set deserves a warm welcome. Symphonies 10 and 21 were recorded by Unicorn in 1972 and the coupling was available on vinyl and then briefly on a rather dry sounding CD reissue some years later. The works on the second CD were recorded by CBS in 1974 but have not been reissued since the original CBS Classics LP release in 1975. The Heritage audio engineers have used the original masters as a starting point to produce this reissue.

 

I urge potential listeners not to be put off by the fact that the musicians involved are amateurs. “Schools orchestra” - the very term can send a shiver down the spine. It conjures up thin, painful strings and crude, out of tune playing. Well, to quickly put that concern to bed, the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra made commercial LPs for the Pye and Argo labels under the direction of Tippett, Bliss and Previn a few years before these Brian sessions took place. In the 1970s the orchestra’s patron and regular conductor, Sir Michael Tippett, compared it favourably to the National Youth Orchestra. Despite occasional lapses of intonation and a few bars where the youngsters are stretched close to their limits their playing is really quite remarkable in terms of its musicality, technical assurance and poise.

 

As far as repertoire is concerned I can think of no better introduction to the varied sound world of Havergal Brian than the music that is on offer here. We have two short but magnificent symphonies (10 and 22), an attractive choral work and a quirkily original orchestral suite. Thrown in for good measure is the only currently available recording of the very approachable Symphony No.21.  

 

Many sceptics have an entrenched view of Brian as being a self-taught amateur, big on ideas but small on content and ability. He’s the man who produced music with so many lines of confusing counterpoint that all you end up hearing is an opaque, grey, orchestral mush. He also specialised in composing massive, impractical scores with the occasional kitchen sink thrown in for good measure. Well, some of these observations may contain elements of truth but none of them apply to any of the works featured here. I don’t sit in the camp that claims that Brian is a great composer but I object to him being dismissed out of hand because of unfounded misconceptions and generalisations. His huge output was admittedly inconsistent but at his best he has something to say and he’s worth hearing. He’s been treated rather shoddily over the years by the musical establishment (whoever they may be) and he deserves more respect and credit for his achievements. There’s some fabulous, uplifting music to be heard on this Heritage set. Be warned - some of it can become addictive!

 

Symphony No.10 is permanently engraved on my mind and has been since encountering it on the original Unicorn LP. It opens with a gripping march and fragments of this opening theme form the basis of everything else that follows. The music is often meditative in nature but there’s always an underlying menace about it. There are passages of utter stillness that catch the ear. One such passage (great pianissimo playing from the orchestra) eventually erupts into a furious storm which then quickly subsides. The changes of mood and pace are what make this symphony so special. A violin solo takes us into the world of English pastoral music but Brian then engulfs the mood of serenity and calm with one final cataclysmic upheaval before the music quietens down again. The composer then delivers the most astonishing and hair-raising of endings: the violin returns, the mood becomes dark, lonely and introspective and the work finishes with a question mark hanging over it. This is a tremendous symphony and the inspired performance is as good as you could reasonably expect from a youth orchestra. Some of the playing is jaw-dropping in its brilliance. The sense of danger and discovery is tangible. Martyn Brabbins has recently recorded the 10th for Dutton but despite the higher level of orchestral execution his version seems to lack the magic and atmosphere conjured up by Loughran in Leicester.

 

Brian is accused of composing mammoth, overblown impractical works but this can be brushed aside by listening to Symphony No.22, running as it does for just over 9 minutes. Written in 1964/65 when he was in his 80s, the general mood is one of menace and impending doom. Had it been written in the late 1930s it could be argued that it was the composer’s reaction to the imminent outbreak of war. The march rhythms, so typical of Brian, conjure up visions of the military and the gathering of dark clouds. Moments of repose are regularly brought crashing down and the ending is magical - it’s another question mark “what next?” The work has less immediate appeal than the 10th but it’s one of those pieces that can quickly get under your skin. An awful lot happens in its highly compressed timespan. Heltay’s performance is superb and the LSSO rises to the challenge. The recent Naxos version by Alexander Walker has superior orchestral playing but there’s not much in it and the LSSO is in no way totally outclassed. Walker also adds an irritating pause between the two movements thus destroying the continuity of the symphony and he totally misses the mood of foreboding at the very end. Laszlo Heltay generates more atmosphere and bite and in truth the thinner string tone of the LSSO allows the listener to hear more inner detail compared to the luxuriant, smooth sounds generated by the Russian forces on Naxos. The LSSO versions of 10 and 22 are still arguably the ones to go for.

 

Symphony No.21 is good natured and pastoral in mood. It’s less angry than many of Brian’s pieces and there’s something very genial about it. The heart of the symphony is the beautiful slow movement which in turns can be elegiac and then grave with sudden outbursts of brass sonorities underpinning the string-laden texture. This music is a nod in the direction of Vaughan Williams and the string section copes very well with the exposed, legato writing it is asked to deliver. The ensuing scherzo is mercurial and playful, allowing the orchestra to display its virtuoso capabilities to the full with its scampering woodwinds and imposing horns. The finale has passages of Brianesque grimness and anti-romanticism about it but there are also some light, melodious interludes (lovely work by the flautist). The momentary lapse in string ensemble at the very beginning should have been given a retake but no matter - Eric Pinkett’s realisation of the work is well worth hearing. Towards the end he propels the music forward and in his hands the symphony comes to a glowing, optimistic close.

 

The orchestra has a whale of a time in the English Suite No.5. This is almost light music but not quite. Brian continually adds some quite bizarre twists and turns into the fabric and the music isn’t always as straight forward as it would appear to be from the titles he has given to the four movements. The opening Trotting to Market bounces along quite nicely but then we keep encountering pauses and gear changes. Do the horses keep stopping for a break or do the cart wheels keep falling off? Either way it’s very congenial, as is the closing movement, Village Revels, with its high spirits, attractive folk dance tune and blazing final bars. The two central movements are the most satisfying and original. The Restless Stream is quite remarkable. Written for woodwind and percussion (with horns included at the very end) the music bubbles away but there is something quite uncomfortable and sinister lurking underneath the surface. This short intermezzo could have been penned by Nielsen in one of his stranger moods. The highlight of the suite is the stunning Reverie scored for strings alone. Running for the best part of 10 minutes this dark elegy is English to the core but it treads a different path to the likes of Vaughan Williams and Elgar. This is Brian at his most inspired. This is intensely grave and searchingly tragic music, expertly scored and beautifully played by the LSSO string section.

 

Brian’s Psalm 23 has its foundations firmly rooted in the English choral tradition. Despite being tuneful, confident and uplifting the work seems to be missing all the usual Brian fingerprints of originality. It’s structurally sound and enjoyable to listen to but it’s hard to make any huge claims for it. The Brighton Festival Chorus and tenor soloist Paul Taylor sing confidently throughout but the orchestra, by its own superlative standards, sounds slightly less secure than usual. Some entries are tentative and the flute and oboe intonation could have been improved. Maybe the players didn’t quite have the notes under their fingers. However, it’s still a good performance. Heltay captures the spirit of the work and the orchestra and choir clearly understand and enjoy its idiom.

 

So now to the quality of the CD transfers. The Unicorn 10/21 coupling taped at De Montfort Hall was always a good recording on vinyl but rather less appealing when it was reissued on CD. The Heritage transfer is excellent with a natural balance, clarity, warmth and good clean bass. The off stage trumpet and horn solos both sound as if they come from another world and all the climaxes have tremendous presence and bite. This is analogue sound at its finest. The CBS LP was never very easy to enjoy with its scrawny, fizzy strings and over-bright percussion. The Heritage transfer is a miraculous improvement. Symphony 22 and Psalm 23, although recorded in Hove Town Hall, sound very similar in quality to the Unicorn De Montfort Hall sessions. The chorus in Psalm 23 is clean and imposing with wonderfully clear diction. The ruinous end of side distortion encountered on the LP is absent, thus giving the climaxes plenty of air. The engineering in English Suite No.5, supervised by a different producer, is more “Phase Four” in its approach. Everything is very closely recorded and there are a few extraneous noises to be heard (bow taps and the like). However, there’s no doubting the physical impact of the music making - glorious horns, highly detailed woodwind and clear percussion. The string tone is bright and sweet and the cellos and basses are very realistic. In summary, this set could convert some new listeners to Brian’s music. The playing is never less than good and it is often brilliant. This should be in the collection of anyone even remotely interested in British music.

 

John Whitmore