‘Brief Encounter’ with Leon McCawley at the Royal Festival Hall

As part of the Southbank Centre’s Festival of Love this summer, there have been three screenings of the classic love story Brief Encounter, with a live performance of the score (drawn largely from Rachmaninov’s perennially popular 2nd Piano Concerto) by pianist Leon McCawley with the LPO. The film screening took place during the second half of the concert and was preceded in the first half by a full performance of the Rachmaninov Concerto. The whole event was introduced by Lucy Fleming, daughter of Celia Johnson, who plays Laura, the female lead in Brief Encounter. Her introduction was full of wonderful anecdotes about the making of the film (which took place during the final year of the war), including extracts from Celia Johnson’s diary.

Trevor Howard as Alec and Celia Johnston as Laura in ‘Brief Encounter’

Based on Still Life, a one-act play by Noel Coward, and directed by David Lean, the plot centres around Laura, a suburban housewife married to a dependable but rather dull man. A chance meeting with a doctor, Alec Harvey, in the ‘refreshment room’ at the station (which is fiercely guarded by the wonderfully-named Myrtle Bagot, played by Joyce Carey with some of the best lines in the entire film) leads Laura into a brief but intense romantic liaison with the doctor, before circumstances and their own moral integrity forces them to part, never to meet again…. Much of the action is narrated by Laura, and despite the plummy, cut-glass RP accents of the main characters, the plot is sharply-observed, witty, very funny at times, and also heart-rendingly poignant. The story is underpinned by the wonderful score, and was in fact largely responsible for bringing this epic piece of music to wider fame. It has undoubtedly contributed to the enduring appeal.

It must be 20 years since I last heard the ‘Rach 2’ performed live (I think by Evgeny Kissin at the Proms) and I had forgotten what a gloriously rich and expressive work it is. Towering and climactic, it is demanding work to play, and one of the chief challenges is avoiding an overly-romantic reading of it. Leon McCawley’s warm tone was perfect for this work, combined with an exquisite clarity and an ability to highlight some of the less obvious details in the score. The entire work had a classical edge to it which avoided sentimentality, yet never detracted from the rich textures of the score.

Leon McCawley & the LPO (photo (c) Leon McCawley)
Leon McCawley & the LPO (photo (c) Leon McCawley)

To perform the score with the film must have taken some very careful rehearsing to create such a smooth synthesis of film and soundtrack. In her introduction, Lucy Fleming explained that some complicated technical processes were used to strip out the original music from the film. A new soundtrack was commissioned especially for the RFH screening: this played while we watched the film was the most wonderful cinematic and musical experience, a nod back to the days of silent cinema, almost, when films would be accompanied and “narrated” by a resident pianist, small orchestra or organist.  A really superb evening celebrating great music and a great film, both of which have most definitely stood the test of time. Oh, and the enduring power of love…..