Havergal Brian lived four years short of a century. For some eighty
of those years he wrote music. His 32 symphonies form the single most
numerous aspect of his production and extend over the longest period
of his eight active decades.
The four works here are drawn from close to the extremes of his writing
period. The three symphonies are from the mid-1960s when he had less
than ten years left. The Suite is from his vigorous twenties.
The symphonies communicate to me as a collage of voices: sometimes
consonant and sometimes in collision. Those voices are variously mysterious,
tender, prayerful, sardonic, furious and embattled. On the surface the progress of the symphonies proceeds awkwardly and with Bruckner-style
silences along the way. Of these three examples the Symphonia
Brevis is the most impressive. Setting the special case of The
Gothic to one side, after the Sixth
Symphony, the Brevis is the most memorable. It's also
the one where artistic logic and emotional symmetry are at their most
compelling. The effect of an epic is achieved in only 9:22 and in
that sense the Brevis compares with the somewhat longer Rubbra Eleventh Symphony.
I remember playing the work to groove destruction when the CBS LP
came out (you can still hear that performance on Klassic
House). It is a remarkable work and forms a weird but fitting
counterpart to The Gothic.
Numbers 23 and 24 appear here in their first ever recordings. This
leaves - I think - only No. 5 (Wine of Summer) to be recorded
before all are available on commercial CD. No. 23 is eerie, belligerent
and seethes with incident. As always with Brian the writing
is tonal. If it is not instantly accessible it is because of his
compression of argument. The composer leaves it to the audience to
fill in the dots between his at times disconcerting transitions. At
first blush Brian's building blocks can be heard as an extrusion from
the material of Vaughan Williams' Fourth Symphony though the progress
of No. 23 differs from that of the RVW. Just as with No. 24 - which
unlike its two predecessors is in a single movement - concision and
compression are the order of the day. Episodes melt or blast into
one another at a sometimes disorientating pelt. Brian offers the reassurance
of familiarity in the shape of moments in the first movement of No.
23 which evoke the final awed pages of The Gothic. There's
also a strangely familiar valedictory gesture at the very end of the
second and final movement; I just cannot quite place it. No. 24 piles
in with a confident march gesture but this soon falls away into the
pell-mell of calculated motes and shards. First time
around some of these will speak to you while others will leave you high and dry. The symphony ends with scathing and corrosive fanfare
material that is suddenly transformed into something unequivocally
At the other extreme comes the Suite. It's the first of five, of which only
four have survived. The six substantial movements are light in the
sense that Dvorak's and Smetana's suites and dances can
be considered light. There is humour aplenty here but mixed in with moments
of rural bliss, sentimentality, Nutcracker magic (Interlude and Carnival),
sonorous praise. If you have heard the old BBC broadcast of Brian's
opera The Tigers then some of this material will have a familiar
ring. The movements of the suite are: I. Characteristic March; II.
Valse; III. Under the Bench Tree; IV. Interlude; V. Hymn; VI. Carnival.
The liner-note is by long-time Brian champion - and so much more, witness
his work on Tempo - Malcolm MacDonald. It completes a well assembled
and generous disc which, given the presence of the Suite and the wild
yet rigorous fantasy of the Symphonia Brevis, serves as a
welcoming gateway to Brian enthusiasts existing and potential.
I am grateful to Colin Mackie for a correction to my review:
In fact there is still some way to go before before all but one of the Brian symphonies have been recorded.
The following symphonies ARE available commercially:
No.1 “Gothic”: Naxos , Testament and Hyperion
No.4 “Das Siegeslied”: Naxos
No.9: EMI and Dutton
No.11: Naxos and Dutton
Available “semi-commercially” from Klassic Haus are:-
No.4 “Das Siegeslied”
No.5 “Wine of Summer”
That still leaves Nos. 26, 27 and 29 unrecorded.
A case of watch this space but 'completion' is in sight.