COMPOSERS: Havergal Brian
ALBUM TITLE: The Complete Havergal Brian
WORKS: Little Sleeper; John Dowland’s Fantasy; Contemporary Songs; Legend for Violin and Piano; Elizabethan Songs; Unison Songs; Three Illuminations; Soliloquy upon a dead child; Three songs for a tenor
PERFORMER: Mark Stone (baritone), Jonathan Stone (violin), Sholto Kynoch (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 5060192780154
Collectors love completism. Those of us who prefer sustained quality would best steer clear of this very mixed batch of songs, by a composer who pursued the art of creative unevenness with a compulsion that was almost exultant. If Havergal Brian, arriving broke in London after his marriage break-up in 1913, wrote music as trite as his Three Unison Songs to flog (successfully) to a publisher, fair enough. But why bother recording it a century later?
Only the same nonexistent self-criticism, plus a tedious streak of Anglo-Saxon eccentricity, could have brought about the Three Illuminations for piano. Much of the rest of this material, while at least coherently written, is as anonymous as the Victorian song tradition to which it relates. And sure enough the odd item shows, almost maddeningly, what impressive results Brian’s talent could achieve when he got it into focus. ‘Day and Night’, from the Three Songs for tenor, has something of Hugo Wolf’s ultra-vivid spareness and intensity.
And in ‘The Soul of Steel’, one wildly uncompromising phrase after another rains down with the force of an axe blow. Brian fanatics, while no doubt queueing up for more, will savour the consistently strong performances by these three fine musicians.