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Havergal BRIAN (1876-1972)
Symphony No. 22, Symphonia brevis (1964/65) [9:22]
Symphony No. 23 (1965) [13:44]
Symphony No. 24 in D major (1965) [16:29]
English Suite No. 1, Op. 12 (1905/06) [25:51]
New Russia State Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Walker
rec. 26-27, 30-31 August 2012, Studio 5, Russian State TV and Radio Company KULTURA, Moscow, Russia,
NAXOS 8.572833 [65:27]

It was in the late 1970s that I borrowed from the local library Kenneth Eastaugh’s biography ‘Havergal Brian: The Making of a Composer’. Brian was the very model of an unjustly neglected composer and I recall being saddened by the promises of numerous premières of his works that never came to be and his general lack of recognition. I remember buying one or two recordings played by school orchestras with part of me thinking that this music cannot be that good if no professional orchestras could be persuaded to take Brian’s works into the recording studio.
 
Although at first hearing the music seemed dark, dense and rather impenetrable I persisted and remained fascinated with the many colourful and exciting sounding titles such as the Comedy Overtures Doctor Merryheart; The Jolly Miller and The Tinker's Wedding; Cantata,The Vision of Cleopatra; Fantastic symphony;Turandot Suite; the Concert Overture For Valour and, best of all, the thrilling sounding opera The Tigers.
 
Requiring a thousand singers and musicians the vast proportions of the Symphony No. 1The Gothic’, often described as a masterwork, but probably doomed rarely to be performed professionally, seemed to dominate and overshadow everything else Brian had written. Who would believe it! In 2011 The Gothic was performed at the BBC Proms (issued by Hyperion) and thanks to labels such as Naxos, Toccata Classics and Dutton Epoch Brian recordings seem to be appearing at a fair rate of knots. At this very moment as I’m sat writing this piece Brian’s Symphony No. 5 (The Wine of Summer) is being played on BBC Radio 3 on 25 June 2013 by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Nicholas Kok with Donald Maxwell (baritone). It’s acutely noticeable that his music is absent from concert programmes but that applies to the vast majority of worthy British composers; not just to Brian.
 
It doesn’t seem long since the release on Dutton Epoch CDLX7296 containing the Symphony No. 13, Violin Concerto, OvertureThe Tinker's Wedding’ and the English Suite No. 4Kindergarten’ played by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins. Now this welcome Naxos disc arrives containing Symphonies Nos. 22, ‘Symphonia brevis’, 23 and 24 with the English Suite No. 1, Op. 12. Incidentally the notes in the Naxos booklet state that the Symphonies Nos. 23 and 24 are being given their first recordings.
 
In 1958 Brian had moved to Shoreham-by-Sea, Sussex and this set of three symphonies formed part of the last period of Brian’s life when in an Indian summer of productivity he wrote 20 symphonies. The three here were composed in a nine month period in 1964/65 when Brian would have been eighty-eight/eighty-nine. The predominant impression is how charged they are with immense reserves of weight, power and energy often conveying an intense sense of struggle and turmoil.
 
At just over nine minutes the Symphony No. 22 known as the ‘Symphonia brevis’ is Brian’s shortest symphony. Composed in 1964/65 the two movement score was introduced in 1971 at a recording session at St John's Smith Square, London played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Myer Fredman. The opening movement Maestoso e ritmico feels predominantly ardent and restless with the music swelling to an impressive conclusion. A calm yet uneasy march of a martial quality opens the second movement Tempo di marcia e ritmico before at 2:28 the music explodes into life taking the music to a severe and rather acerbic climax before relative calm is restored.
 
From 1965 the Symphony No. 23 is another two movement score first performed in 1973 at Galesburg, Illinois by the University of Illinois Symphony Orchestra, under Bernard Goodman. It seems that Brian considered giving the score the title of ‘Symphonia grandis’. A sense of pressurised anxiety and suppressed anger suffuses the opening movement Moderato - Allegro con anima which feels like a depiction of an army preparing for imminent battle. The second movement marked Adagio non troppo ma pesante is dark and craggy, laden with a strong sense of apprehension. Just prior to the conclusion the music takes on a distinctly martial quality.
 
Using a single movement form, divided into three discernable sections, the Symphony No. 24 in D major is mightily impressive. I responded to it strongly and consider it a twentieth century masterwork. Composed in 1965 it was not until 1973 that it was first performed for the reason of making a recording by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conductor Myer Fredman. The moods vary widely from what feels initially like a depiction of a victory pageant, leading to doleful writing of an unsettling rather disconsolate character. Distinctively, a lighter, calmer section comes as a welcome break and the brass fanfare from 9:16 reminded me of knights jousting at a medieval pageant. Contrastingly the symphony closes with a restful Adagio serving as a bright optimistic new dawn.
 
The earliest work here is the six movement English Suite No. 1, Op. 12 from 1905/06 the first of five such English Suites. One of his first works to receive a performance, it was the composer himself who conducted the Leeds Municipal Orchestra at its première in 1907 at Leeds Town Hall. Brian provides sufficient contrast in the movements to hold the interest easily. I especially enjoyed the opening movement Characteristic March,a representation of the Novello publishing house at Berners Street, London. The curious Waltz section feels rather starchy and formal but overall the effect is most agreeable. The final movement is extremely enjoyable and full of merrymaking including snippets of familiar tunes such as God Save The Queen.
 
The Russian State TV and Radio Company engineers have provided a satisfying sound quality. The New Russia State Symphony Orchestra under Alexander Walker evidently understand the turbulence of the writing. They play with an excellent vitality and strong character in which the climaxes are thrust home decisively.  

Michael Cookson 

See also review by Rob Barnett

Havergal Brian on Naxos


Experience Classicsonline