Sunday 13 July 2014

Peter Hill brings many insights to the piano works of Havergal Brian on a new release from Cameo Classics

William Havergal Brian (1976-1972) born of humble origins in the Staffordshire potteries, gained the financial support of Herbert Minton, the wealthy director of the Minton china firm and, by 1907, with the London debut of his English Suite, was on the threshold of great success. Yet by the time of the First World War his reputation had diminished, his first marriage had collapsed and he had left the Midlands for London. His perceived treatment of his first wife did little to endear him to his friends such as Minton and Sir Granville Bantock.

Despite working for Musical Opinion for a number of years and taking hack work his financial circumstances were always poor. Yet despite all the setbacks Brian, with his determined and, in many ways, obsessive attitude wrote thirty two symphonies, five operas, over thirty miscellaneous orchestral works, two concertos, works for voices and orchestra and a number of piano works.

It is his piano works that feature on a new release from the enterprising Cameo Classics label . Billed as the complete music for piano, Peter Hill , renowned for his performances and recordings of the piano music of Olivier Messiaen, brings his superb musicianship to performances that give an insight into another part of Brian’s creative genius.

Three of the works on this disc, the Prelude and Fugue in C minor, Double Fugue in E flat major and Prelude and Fugue in D minor/major date from 1924 but were developed from studies written around the time Brian was composing his massive Gothic Symphony (1919-27).

The first on this disc is the Prelude and Fugue in C minor (1924). It is tonally free and beautifully constructed with Peter Hill bringing out all the structural intricacies of this work. Such are the attractions of this work that I am surprised it has not become a popular piece in recitals. The Fugue in particular is quite unusual, having the sound of Shostakovich, though his 24 Preludes and Fugues didn’t appear until the 1950s, some 26 years later.

At over 15 minutes in duration, the Double Fugue in E flat major (1924) is even more of an achievement. Again there is an advanced sound world around which Brian constructs this fine double fugue Peter Hill’s ability to pace this music, drawing out all the musical lines is impressive. Yet again, this is a very individual work, at times rather sprawling but never without interest in Hill’s hands.

The March from Turandot (1950-51) has nothing to do with Puccini’s famous opera but one by Brian of the same name. Brian worked on a number of operas over his compositional lifetime. Turandot remained unperformed.

This piece opens rather darkly and hesitantly as the march rhythm slowly emerges from the textures. It retains certain dark qualities throughout its length with a number of changes of rhythm. The music develops some striking passages of some complexity, brilliantly executed by Hill. This is a really terrific piece.

It was, no doubt, Brian’s interest in 16th/17th century music that brought about his Prelude, John Dowland’s Fancy (1934), a little gem, overlaying Brian’s style on that of earlier models and into which the feel of the Preludes intrudes.

Four Miniatures (1918-20) include a strange, fleeting little Allegro that rises a number of times from slower sections, only to end quietly; The Land of Dreams: Lento tranquillo e sempre rubato that roams quietly around in an attractive melody, often dreamlike, sometimes more animated; a leisurely Andante e grazioso, with little rhythmic interruptions, that builds to a climax before the return of the opening leisurely pace and The Birds: Andantino tranquillo e sempre rubato, another leisurely little piece with rhythmic phrases and trills.

The opening Prelude of the Prelude and Fugue in D minor/major (1924) gently rises up in a forward flowing melody. Soon there is a more forceful section before the music falls back. The Fugue opens slowly and quietly, maintaining its tranquillity. Eventually it increases in intensity, with some terrifically complex passages, brilliantly played by Hill.

There is a spoken commentary over each of the Three Illuminations (1916). Satirical in nature The Boys and the Pastille relates to the antics that can occur to and around a church organist and congregation including such gems as ‘…the organist has gone to war and the deputy was only sure of two pedals – the bottom one and the 5th above’.

The Butterfly’s Waltz is a musical description of a butterfly’s movements and its adventures whereas Venus and a Bobby mocks the nocturnal escapades of a policeman and a beautiful woman he spies in a lit window.

Written just before his opera The Tigers (1917-29), these are slight but entertaining pieces.

Peter Hill’s performances are excellent with many insights into this singular composers smaller scale works. The recording is warm but full of detail.

There are useful booklet notes by the late Harold Truscott (1914-1992). Cameo Classics must be thanked for bringing these recordings to us.

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