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8, 21, 26
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Havergal BRIAN (1876-1972)
Symphony No. 8 in B Flat Minor (1949) [23:20]
Symphony No. 21 in E Flat Major (1963) [29:19]
Symphony No. 26 (1966) [17:48]
New Russia State Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Walker
rec. 2016, Studio 5 Russian State TV and Radio Company Kultura, Moscow NAXOS 8.573752 [70:27]
Naxos, with a flourish, complete the record industry's task of bringing all 32 of Havergal Brian's numbered symphonies to commercial disc. The process began in LP days during the composer's last years when such a prospect seemed unthinkable and each Brian symphony was grasped and dissected as it was issued or broadcast.
This decently filled disc presents three symphonies, two from his prodigiously productive 1960s and one from 1949. The latter - Symphony No. 8 - might, at the time, have been seen as a preliminary step towards the achievement by any estimable composer of the obligatory Nine. In fact, there is nothing preliminary about this concentrated 23-minute single-movement (single track) - about the same duration as Sibelius's Seventh and Rubbra's Eleventh. It's no-one's overture and is complete of itself.
The Eighth is a work propelled forward by march-like cells and paragraphs. Amid such material are pools of chilly and almost inert reflection. There's also some luxurious melodic material - for example massed strings (13:00) and solo oboe (16:20). Magical glimmering pages can also be found at 20:00 - a shimmering ice-cave worthy of Brian's Sinfonia Tragica. A not unmixed peace pervades the last quiet pages.
The Eighth has been recorded before - in 1977 - as part of EMI Classics's Groves-conducted disc. Those sessions also included the Ninth Symphony. Benefiting from Alexander Walker's percipience and dedication, the Russian orchestra's familiarity with Brian's idiom and four days of recording sessions the Symphony emerges with much greater clarity than could be brought to it some forty years earlier in Liverpool. This transparency renders the complete span and the component incidents with impact and fusion. This is a vivid performance aided by characterful engaged playing: for example, listen at 6:19 onwards to that virile Russian trumpet ringing out. This is not faceless playing and long may the New Russia State Symphony Orchestra keep this tradition alive. The smooth cosmopolitan style - also to be heard in French horn practice - is abrading away the stuff of life.
The language of the Symphony No. 21 can be tougher but it has its moments of relaxation and it is made the more approachable by having its almost half-hour span structured across four separately tracked movements. Listen to the solo violin near the start of the second movement Adagio cantabile - it recalls similar melting passages in The Gothic and the Third and we return to more lyrical regions in the final Allegro con fuoco. The pattering Vivace doffs its hat towards Brian's pastoral greenery in the five English Suites although his brand is bluffer and more of a bumpkin than that to be heard from Howells, Finzi or Butterworth. The last movement, the longest of the four at more than eleven minutes, further stiffens the consistency with passages of rough symphonic hessian at times sounding a little like Nielsen or even his contemporary William Alwyn. Brian closes the symphony with a rough drum-pounded magnificence and those Russian trumpets call out over the mêlée.
This Symphony was first issued in the early pioneering years of Brian recordings on a Unicorn LP. It was at the hands of the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra conducted by a name now forgotten, Eric Pinkett. The recording was issued during the composer's last years but this is the work's first commercial recording by a fully professional orchestra. It was the first to be commercially recorded and was issued in harness with No. 10 where the same youth orchestra was conducted by James Loughran. If you are curious about those early recordings and about the incandescent CBS recording of the Symphonia Brevis (No. 22) then you can hear them on Heritage HTGCD256-7.
The Symphony No. 26, appearing in its premiere commercial recording is the last jigsaw piece to complete Brian's symphonic landscape. It's in three separately tracked movements - I. Allegro risoluto [7:19]; II. Allegro moderato e grazioso - Giocoso [5:09]; III. Allegro assai [5:20] - and that certainly helps. Little wonder that this, as the emotionally coolest of the three works presented here, is the last to receive a commercial recording, even if it is also the shortest of the three. It's a tonal work, like all the Brian symphonies, but it admits the softer human emotions only through desultory cracks in the face paint. It's a while since I played back my recording of Vernon Handley's 1976 studio broadcast of this work but I do not recall it presenting any less serious a face to the world. It's not without magnificence but the music does not reach out to welcome the listener in the way that Brian's symphonies 1-3 and 5-6 do.
The helpful English-only note is by composer John Pickard.
I cannot see it happening any time soon but this now means that a box of the Havergal Brian symphonies could be produced once if licensing arrangements could be struck between Warner, Hyperion, Dutton, Lyrita and Unicorn. If it can be done by Decca-Universal for Britten it can be done for Brian. I wouldn't hold your breath, though.
An Odyssean feat is now complete but more to the point this vividly recorded and performed disc of symphonies brings three aspects of Havergal Brian's disorientatingly glorious world to continuing life.
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