Classical & Opera review: The (long) life of Brian

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Thirty-two symphonies - 24 in 10 years - as well as four large operas make Havergal Brian one of classical music's most prolific composers. Unhappily, little of his output has ever been performed. This week's performance of his opera `The Cenci' is therefore truly significant

The cult figure has always held a unique position in all art forms - admired, if not not eulogised, by a small and dedicated band of aficionados; forgotten or even openly maligned by the establishment. Britain has perhaps engendered more obscure cult figures than elsewhere - take Havergal Brian (1876-1972). For genuine cult status to be achieved it helps if you have a strange name and live, and create, on into your nineties. Needless to say, Brian now has his own website on the world wide web.

Brian is in many ways unique . Born into a working-class Potteries family, he was virtually self-taught. Some of his early compositions were praised by the likes of Elgar and Bantock, yet his growing body of mature work remained unperformed. Not that that seemed to deter the stalwart Brian, who spent eight years labouring over his massive 1st Symphony, The Gothic. By his late seventies, Brian had written eight symphonies.

Then, in a final 10-year Indian summer of productivity, he added no fewer than 24 more symphonies to bis tally, as well as four operas - Turandot, The Cenci, Faust and Agamemnon. Brian has always had his fair share of champions - amongst them the late Robert Simpson - and a number of the symphonies have been recorded. A live Brian performance, though, is still a very rare event indeed.

Indeed, none of Brian's five full-length operas will have ever been heard in public until this Friday when the Havergal Brian Society stages The Cenci.

In The Cenci, Brian distils Shelley's gruesome Gothic verse into a number of short scenes, making the poetic work dramatically manageable. But more importantly, what's the music like? "Marvellous," says its enthusiastic conductor, the young James Kelleher. He will be directing the Millennium Sinfonia and a high-powered cast, led by Helen Field, David Wilson-Johnson and Inga Jonsdottir. "Brian employs his customary largish, but not massive, orchestra, but there's nothing congested or thickly scored about the textures and much of the vocal writing is expertly handled in what might be called `dramatic parlando' style."

Does Kelleher believe that this airing of The Cenci will help the Brian cause? "If the Havergal Brian Society doesn't pull out the stops every so often to mount an evening like this, no one else will. I just hope the general public will come along and support this event, where what they'll get is a fine `new' English opera - accessible, exciting and rewarding."

Poor Brian died two months short of his 97th birthday without ever having heard many of his finest works. The message from the Brian camp is, don't do likewise!

Havergal Brian's `The Cenci' is at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, SE1 (0171- 960 4242) on 12 Dec. The Brian website is at www.hyperion-records.co.uk/societies/brian.html

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