31 AUGUST 2011


The albums below are "Classical Releases Of Current Key Significance," or "CROCKS", if you will. To purchase an album, simply click on one of the Web site retail outlets given in the "AVAILABILITY" table under the write-up.

The album cover may not always appear. The album cover may not always appear.
Brian: Burlesque Vars..., Eng Ste 5, Elegy, Legend "Ave atque Vale"; Walker/BBCScot SO [Toccata]
Brian: Sym 10, Eng Ste 3, Conc for Orch, Sym 30;
Brabbins/RScotNa O [Dutton]
After a three year hiatus, it would seem a revival of British composer Havergal Brian's (1876-1972) music is again underway, if the three releases pictured above and just below are any indication. His compatriot, friend and champion Robert Simpson (1921-1997) once jested he was "a geriatric prodigy," which in retrospect seems an apt description of someone who wrote meaningful music until the age of ninety-two. At that point he'd been an active composer for seventy-five years (1892-1968), which constitutes one of the longest musical careers on record.

The selections included in this newsletter cover the period from 1903 through 1967, and represent a good cross-section of his efforts. Except for the tenth symphony, all make their professional recorded debuts. And be sure to read Brian authority Malcolm MacDonald's (b. 1948) superb album notes to get the most out of them!

Proceeding chronologically: the earliest piece, Burlesque Variations on an Original Theme of 1903 [Toccata, tracks-3 through 10], was believed to be lost until it surfaced at an estate sale in 1974. Scored for massive forces that include a large percussion section and organ, it could be considered Brian's answer to his musical hero Sir Edward Elgar's (1857-1934) Enigma Variations (1898-89).

Brian's original theme [track-3] is in the minor and unassuming, which makes the six complex contortions he's about to put it through all the more striking. This probably explains the term "Burlesque," which certainly applies to the canonically mocking first variation [tracks-4], and tempestuous second [track-5]. A lovely flowing elegiac third [track-6], insistently systaltic fourth [track-7] and flighty fifth [track-8], which may remind you of the same-numbered one in Brahms'(1833-1897) Haydn Variations (1873), follow.

The melancholy sixth [track-9] was apparently a later replacement for something already there, and is about as romantic as Brian ever gets. Finally there's the extended seventh [track-10], which at eight minutes takes up a third of the whole piece. Titled "Finale en form d'Ouverture," it's a romantic concert overture in sonata form with motifs drawn from previous variations. The impressive development overlaps the recapitulation, which ends the piece in a thrilling coda. Here the main theme, now in the major, appears as a triumphant chorale with scurrying strings, trumpet fanfares and Edwardian support from the organ.

Between 1902 and 1953 the composer wrote five English Suites, the second of which is now lost. But two of the remaining ones are included here, beginning with the third of 1919-21 [Dutton, tracks-2 through 6]. The composer tells us it was inspired by the countryside around Sussex, where he was then living. Accordingly one would expect one of those idealistic pastorales like Delius (1862-1934, see the newsletter of 27 July 2011), Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) and George Butterworth (1885-1916) were turning out.

But no, Brian marches to a different tune, giving us a suite of five bizarre rusticities. The first, "Ancient Village," is the most pastoral, but there's an intermittent restlessness filling it with misgiving. Hints of the Rhine leitmotif in Wagner's (1813-1883) Der Ring des Nibelungen (1869-1876) and Smetana's (1824-1884) "Moldau" from Má vlast (My Country, 1872-79) [track-2, beginning at 01:24] may suggest a nearby river. While echoes of Tchaikovsky's (1840-1893) The Nutcracker (1892) and Mahler's (1860-1911) symphonies (1896-1910) are to be found in the festive conjugal "Epithalamium."

A martially equestrian "Postillions," and tragically adamantine "The Stonebreaker" with ad libitum organ reinforcement, follow. The "Merry Peasant" finale has tipsy, raucous outer passages surrounding a delightfully delicate waltz episode. They suggest the provincial in question had one too many, and end the piece with him thumbing his nose at everyone! Incidentally, astute listeners will notice what sounds like a paraphrase of the opening measures from Richard Strauss' (1864-1949) Burleske for Piano and Orchestra (1885-86) [track-6, beginning at 00:20].

Composed in 1953 with the title Rustic Scenes, towards the end of his life Brian renamed this his English Suite No. 5 [Toccata, tracks-11 through 14], retaining its original moniker as a subtitle. Like the one above it takes its inspiration from the English countryside, but this time the Shropshire-Staffordshire region.

The first of its four movements, "Trotting to Market," is a vivacious, colorfully scored British light offering as opposed to the introspective "Reverie," which is a moving elegy for strings. But the mood once again brightens with a mercurial scherzo for winds and percussion entitled "The Restless Stream," and folksy, high-stepping "Village Revels" finale.

During his lifetime, Brian would write thirty-two symphonies (1919-1968). The tenth was completed in January 1954 [Dutton, track-1], which along with its two predecessors he referred to as "brothers," probably because aspects of human existence underlie each. In the case of the tenth it would seem to be man's struggle against the forces of nature to maintain a foothold in a vast dispassionate universe. Highly organic and compact, it's in a single movement of four connected spans that roughly correspond to the usual parts of a symphony.

Calling for a huge orchestra with a monstrous percussion section having both thunder and wind machines, it opens with what might best be described as a "march of struggle" motif (MS) that will dominate the work. An ingenious development in which this is subjected to tonal as well as rhythmic twists follows, subsiding into a haunting meditative section. But a scherzo of chaos breaks out [track-1, beginning at 06:57], which includes a threatening MS-based fugato, and ends with trumpet calls introducing the equivalent of a slow movement [track-1, beginning at 09:20].

Featuring some lovely solo violin work, it seems reconciliatory in nature, and builds to a towering climax that segues right into the grand finale [track-1, beginning at 12:40]. Reminders of MS return here, temporarily crushing human aspirations. However, optimism revisits the quiet coda, where one can imagine mankind gazing hopefully up at the stars.

Elegy completed in June of 1954 [Toccata, track-2] is a symphonic poem that was originally titled A Song of Sorrow. It's a free-form, connected theme with five variations, where the initial main idea is martially mournful. However, the transformations range from tragic to sanguine, which probably explains why the composer switched to a more generic title. With those semitonal as well as minor-major fluctuations so typical of Brian, this is a brilliantly scored "from-darkness-to-light" essay that's among his best early works.

Brian's Concerto for Orchestra [Dutton, track-7] appeared in 1964 right after his cello concerto (see the recommendation below). Consisting of a single movement with three respectively fast-slow-fast spans, there's a concerto grosso interplay between solo instruments, ensembles and tutti, as well as contrapuntal elements that give it a neo-Baroque patina. Despite that it's very contemporary sounding, and anticipates such similarly named efforts by the likes of Joan Tower (b. 1938, see the newsletter of 20 June 2007), Jukka Tiensuu (b. 1948, see the newsletter of 6 January 2011) and Lisa Bielawa (b. 1968, see the newsletter of 10 September 2010).

It begins with a belligerent allegro featuring an introductory drum roll, and brief strutting motif [track-7, beginning at 02:15] somewhat like "Golliwog's Cakewalk" in Debussy's (1862-1918) Children's Corner Suite (1906-08, see the newsletter of 10 March 2011). The mood lightens with fluttering wind passages that become increasingly lyrical, and transition into a comely slow central span [track-7, beginning at 06:16]. The pace then quickens, leading into a concluding fast section [track-7, beginning at 12:58]. Brilliantly orchestrated, it ends the concerto in a somewhat carnival manner complete with a quote from the old popular folk tune "The Carnival of Venice" [track-7, beginning at 14:43].

Finished in 1967, Brian's thirtieth symphony [Dutton, Tracks-8 and 9] is in two compact movements, and scored for a large orchestra from which he conjures up a variety of exotic sonorities. Fragmented motives, fickle tonality, restless rhythms, and the extended use of contrapuntal devices make it one of his most cabalistic creations.

The initial lento might best be described as a psychedelic passacaglia with a wild hallucinogenic central episode. It's followed almost immediately by the concluding movement, which begins with another of Brian's marches. Unlike the one in his tenth symphony (see above), this is a bizarre creation that starts out as an innocent subdued whimsy, but gets increasingly hostile and deranged as it goes along. The thirtieth concludes with a manic outburst for full orchestra followed by death rattle reverberations from a gong. This is one of those works that bears repeated listening to better see the forest through the trees.

And finally we have Brian's penultimate work, Legend "Ave atque Vale" (Legend "Hail and Farewell"), from 1968 [Toccata, track-1]. Stylistically similar to the thirtieth symphony mentioned above, Legend... is highly temperamental. It overflows with a variety of moods that turn on a dime, and range from cynical to humorous, triumphant, and ultimately conciliatory. One couldn't ask for a better valediction in memory of this composer.

The selections on the Toccata release are admirably performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Garry Walker. And the same can be said of the Dutton ones played by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins. The only quibble would be a touch of queasy solo violin work in "Epithalamium" (see the English Suite No. 3 above).

The recordings are quite different from the soundstage standpoint. The Toccata disc projects a somewhat compressed one in a fairly dry acoustic, while Dutton's is expansive and nourished by agreeably reverberant surroundings. The instrumental timbre on the Toccata is a bit subdued in the high end, but quite musical, whereas clarity and brilliance characterize that on Dutton. Both discs produce good clean bass, and the dynamic range engendered by Brian's robust scoring is particularly well captured by Dutton. You'll want to take it along on your next highend-listening expedition.

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (, P110831, Y110830)


The album cover may not always appear.
Bush, A.: Conc Ste Vc & Orch (w Bowen & Brian); Wallfisch/Yates/BBCCon O [Dutton]
This recent Dutton twofer offers world premiere recordings of three British rarities for cello and orchestra written between 1924 and 1964 by Alan Bush (1900-1995), York Bowen (1884-1961), who's no stranger to these pages (see the newsletter of 6 July 2011), and Havergal Brian (1876-1972, see the Brian recommendations above). To get the most out of them, make sure you read Malcolm Macdonald's superb album notes.

Bush got a bad reputation for his Communist associations in the 1930-40s, which lead to his music being shunned in England until just a few years ago. This was most unfortunate as he was an extremely talented composer, and we're lucky to have his Concert Suite of 1952 included in this album!

Consisting of a brief orchestral introduction and four subsequent movements, it's a throwback to seventeenth century music for the viol, replaced here by the cello. The opening measures [CD-1, track-2] hint at the main idea and accompanying set of variations that comprise the first movement entitled "Divisions on a Ground" [CD-1, track-3]. The "Ballet" that follows [CD-1, track-4] is an infectious scherzo with rhythmically twitchy madrigalian outer sections surrounding a stately pavane.

In the rapturous "Poem" that's next [CD-1, track-5], the cello delivers a gorgeous cantilena somewhat in the spirit of Delius' (1862-1934) pastoral moments (see the newsletter of 27 July 2011). It couldn't be more different from the rustic final "Dance" [CD-1, track-6], which is alternately animated and introspective. It ends the suite with some fiery cello passagework accented by flashes of orchestral color, and will whet your appetite for more Bush!

The rhapsody of York Bowen [CD-1, track-1] from 1924 opens with anxious orchestral chords, growling horns, and the cello intoning an extended theme that turns increasingly rapturous. An animated development with moments of melodic bliss follows. It slowly builds to a frenetic climax, transitioning via rising harp and wind figures into a mystical central episode [track-1, beginning at 09:10] initially reminiscent of "Saturn..." from Gustav Holst's (1874-1934, see the newsletter of 12 March 2009) The Planets (1916).

The spell is broken by resounding horn calls, and an agitated cello piqued by emotional outbursts from the orchestra. But the excitement gradually subsides into a passionately pensive peroration for soloist and tutti, ending the piece in an auburn sunset.

Havergal Brian (see the recommendation above) wrote his concerto [CD-2, tracks-1 through 3] in 1964 at age eighty-eight between the twenty-first (1963, not currently available on disc) and twenty-second (1964-65, not currently available on disc) of his thirty-two symphonies. In three movements, it's a compact utilitarian piece that shows his creative juices were still flowing.

The opening allegro is an engaging functional dialogue between soloist and tutti where brusque thematic ideas are exchanged with contrapuntal as well as variational turns of phrase. On the other hand, the andante is of more lyric persuasion.

It begins with a fanfare for low strings and brass. The cello then states an angular melody, which appears in a variety of Brianesque harmonic guises throughout the movement. The ending is particularly effective with side-drum rolls, skittering scales on the cello, and solemn concluding chords in the orchestra.

The final allegro, which follows almost immediately, is a rondo whose spiky main idea is tossed back and forth by soloist and orchestra. In the process it's subjected to a series of clever chromatic transformations. The final one is contemplative with a return to the opening key of the concerto teasingly delayed until the very end.

These little-known selections receive strong advocacy in the hands of cellist Raphael Wallfisch and the BBC Concert Orchestra under Martin Yates. Their playing is spirited, technically accomplished, and argues for much wider acceptance of this music.

Made at one of England's most popular recording venues, St. Jude-on-the-Hill, London, the sonics are good, and present a generous soundstage in beatific surroundings. The cello is well captured and balanced against the orchestra. The instrumental timbre borders on the metallic, becoming somewhat steely in forte violin passages, but not to the point of distraction.

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (, P110829)


The album cover may not always appear. The album cover may not always appear. The album cover may not always appear.
Schmidt-Kowalski: Sym 3, Vc Conc; Schneider/Neuman/KaisSWR RO
Schmidt-Kowalski: Sym 4, Vn Conc 2; Süssmuth/Neuman/KaisSWR RO
Schmidt-Kowalski: "Sym Dichtungen" (6 orch wks); Schmidt-Kowalski/Leip SO [Naxos]
German-born-and-trained Thomas Schmidt-Kowalski (b. 1949) recently made his CROCKS debut (see the newsletter of 8 June 2011) on a Querstand CD featuring some of his symphonic music, and here are three additional Naxos discs with more of the same. Previously jewel case hard copies of these were only available from Germany, but now you can get two of the them in the U.S. from Records International (see availability below). While we did have some reservations about the performances on the Querstand release, that's not the case with any of these. However, it should be noted that the album notes are only in German.

As we told you in the earlier newsletter (see above), this composer started out as an avantgardist, but soon rejected modernism in favor of a stylistic return to the romantic days of yore. Accordingly there are wisps of Schumann (1810-1856), Bruckner (1824-1896), Brahms (1833-1897), Dvorák (1841-1904) and Richard Strauss (1864-1948) wafting through his music. Yet it's far from derivative, because Schmidt-Kowalski (S-K) is a consummate melodist with an uncanny ability to creatively blend and repackage the old, all of which give his creations considerable individuality.

The first CD begins with his third symphony completed in 2000, which may bring Schumann as well as Brahms to mind. In three movements, the first is a melodically appealing, solidly structured sonata form allegro. It's followed by a scherzo with Brucknerian-accented outer sections surrounding a relaxed pastoral inner one.

Lasting almost as long as what's come before, and chromatically more liberal, the final adagio is the symphony's emotional focal point. There's a harmonic fluidity here recalling Mahler (1860-1911), which seems to be an S-K trademark.

The disc concludes with the cello concerto of 2002 that’s haunted by the specters of Beethoven (1770-1827) and Saint-Saëns (1835-1921). Also in three movements, the opening allegro is a tune-swept rhapsody with immediate appeal. There's an extended meditative cadenza towards the end, and then the movement concludes in triumphant excitement.

Classical simplicity and restraint characterize the tender adagio, where the composer limits himself to only a couple of brief romantic outbursts. There's a melodic inventiveness worthy of Richard Strauss that contrasts most effectively with the businesslike finale. Here hints of past ideas take a final cyclic bow, and then the concerto ends matter-of-factly.

S-K couldn't have better advocates than conductor Manfred Neuman and the Kaiserslautern SWR Radio Philharmonic of Germany. They give a stirring account of the symphony, and together with cellist Nikolai Schneider make a strong case for the concerto.

The recordings project a tunneled soundstage in a highly reverberant acoustic, which will appeal to those liking wetter sonics. The instrumental timbre in both pieces is a bit wiry on the top end, and the cello tone somewhat pinched in the concerto.

And speaking of the concerto, those liking it should also investigate another Records International exclusive Naxos import with S-K's sonatas (3, 1977-2005) and nocturnes (3, no date given) for cello and piano. Committed performances by cellist Alexander Baillie with pianist James Lisney, as well as good sound make it something all romantic chamber music fans will want. Click here for details.

The fourth symphony written in 2003 is featured on the second disc pictured above. In the usual four movements, it begins broodingly somewhat like the opening of Schumann's fourth (1841, revised 1851), but the mood soon brightens with a perky little riff (PL) [track-1, beginning at 02:24] that introduces a couple of memorable heroic ideas (MH). An emotional development with a dramatic march-like episode based on PL follows, and then the mood once again turns somber. But not for long as PL and MH return, prefacing a boisterous concluding coda.

There are lovely impassioned Brahmsian passages along with austere Straussian brass outbursts in the attractive andante. But not one to let things become a romantic quagmire, S-K follows it with a playful scherzo. It's easy to imagine this as describing some rustic village previously visited by Dvorák.

The symphony ends atypically with another andante. This is a romantically charged contemplation of a tune, which with a little stretch of the imagination could be from the duet "Abends will ich schlafen gehn" (“When at night I go to sleep") in Humperdinck's (1854-1921) Hänsel & Gretel (1893). A Brucknerian chorale based on it, and playful references to past ideas bring the work to a vivacious conclusion.

The CD is filled out with S-K's second violin concerto of 2005, which many may find the most romantically compelling work on any of these discs. In three movements, the initial allegro is a gorgeous testimonial to the neoromantic out of Brahms, but with melodic and harmonic subtleties reminiscent of Hans Pfitzner (1869-1949, see the newsletter of 23 February 2011).

It's followed by a moving amorous romance, and then a rhythmically quirky, thematically infectious rondo. Chromatically adventurous and embroidered with some fancy fiddling, it ends the concerto in colorful fashion. Violinist Gernot Süssmuth's superb playing makes it all the more enjoyable.

With the same conductor, orchestra, venue and technical personnel as the first disc, the performances and recorded sound are very similar on both. So rather than repeating ourselves, please see the above.

The third album is entitled "Symphonische Dichtungen" ("Symphonic Poems"), which is a little misleading as only three of the six works on it appear to be programmatic. The first that would seem to qualify is Sternennacht (Starry Night) [track-1]. Originally for chamber ensemble (1989-90), the composer later expanded it for large orchestra (2007), which is the version presented here. It bears the same name as Vincent van Gogh's (1853-1890) celebrated painting (1889), and like that there's a dreamy cosmic aura about S-K's musical landscape that's most appealing.

Leidenschaft und früher Tod (Passion and Early Death) [track-6] from 2004 is billed as a symphonic fantasy. It begins in a mood of quiet optimism that soon turns heroically combative. But the strife soon transitions into lush conciliatory passages, which the album notes tell us represent assurances there's some form of existence after death. In that regard Richard Strauss' Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration, 1888-89) comes immediately to mind.

The third tone poem, Die Wiederkehr von Atlantis (The Return from Atlantis, 2005) [track-7], was inspired by that legendary isle. First mentioned in Plato's (424-347 BC) dialogues (c. 360 BC), it apparently represents for the composer the Golden Age of Greece when reason and harmony prevailed. Accordingly his music brims over with radiance and confidence, recalling one of the high points in human history.

The remaining three pieces include an elegy for viola and orchestra as well as what are in essence two suites for strings. The former selection [track-5] composed in 2008 is dominated by an ardency perfectly suited to a solo instrument commonly considered the most amorous member of the string family.

The suites, entitled Meditationen (Meditations) and Impressionen (Impressions), date from 2006-07 and 1999 respectively. The first is in three poignant sections [tracks-2 through 4] appropriately labeled "Trauermusik" ("Funeral Music"), "Trost" ("Consolation") and "Versöhnung" ("Reconciliation").

The other is in five movements [tracks-8 through 12] and begins with a peaceful beatific andante. It's followed by a fetching three-part scherzo with waltz-like outer sections surrounding a soaring central intermezzo. The work then ends with a reverent adagio that's the most beautiful movement of all, making this diminutive unassuming suite one of the high points on all three discs.

The Leipzig Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer delivers authoritative, loving performances of everything. And violist Emilian Dascal seems to fare much better in the elegy than the concerto included on the Querstand disc mentioned above.

Compared to the previous two symphonic CDs, these recordings present a better proportioned soundstage in a less reverberant venue. However, the instrumental timbre remains a bit wiry on the top end.

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (, P110828, P110827, P110826)

- AVAILABILITY - Records International Records International