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Havergal BRIAN (1876-1972)
Comedy Overture – The Jolly Miller (1962) [4.42]
Violin Concerto in C major (1934-35) [35.37]
Symphony No.18 (1961) [14.26]
Marat Bisengaliev (violin)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Lionel Friend
Recorded in Studio 1, BBC Broadcasting House, Scotland, January 1993
NAXOS 8.557775 [54.45]

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I remember reading a review of the Brian Violin Concerto when it was first issued on Marco Polo that claimed it was the greatest such British work ever written – bar none. Out with Elgar, Walton, Britten, Delius, Stevens, Frankel, Moeran, Dyson et al but in with Brian’s 1934 effort. I took it not so much as (insane) critical judgement but more as relief that this Concerto had finally been accorded a commercial release and that adherents no longer needed to listen to their off-air tape of heroic Ralph Holmes in his solo-modified and somewhat solo-simplified performance. And now, as Marco Polo releases appear with such pleasing regularity on Naxos, the constituency for it and its disc-companions should be greater still. We can deflect our thoughts from the long promised symphonic cycle for a moment to savour this re-release from 1993.

The soloist is pitched in right from the start and almost immediately we reach a second subject of delicious lightness and almost insolent simplicity, one that gathers lyrical sweetness. Whatever you may have heard about Brian’s knotty writing in this work don’t for a moment underestimate its sheer lyric generosity, its many moments of expressive reprieve and the touching delicacy of a lot of the writing. Brian’s reputation as monolithic could not be farther from the truth here even in the rather Hindemith-like moments that run as a spine through the first movement; toughness and sweetness in close consort. There are superb moments; that hieratic brass call – Scandinavian – and the accompanied cadenza that ends the first movement with tough bowing, craggy writing and malicious sounding fingering for the soloist Or try the soft lento theme of the slow movement and its subsequent unfolding passacaglia tread, powerful tuttis and the violin lightening the pressure with exquisite tenderness. Some Elgarian influence can be felt throughout and as the slow movement ends (track 12) some Delian textures in the orchestral writing are audible as well. The finale begins with an Elgarian march but the most singular moments are those when the orchestral pizzicati thrum behind the folkloric yearn of the solo violin – or when Brian pushes the soloist ungratefully high in subsequent passages. It imparts a misterioso element to the music, kaleidoscopic and, as ever, Brian’s centre of musical gravity is constantly shifting; his tectonic plates in permanent motion. The finale is especially commanding and virile with its virtuosic cadenza and resurgent orchestral calls full of brass blare and accelerating drama.

Coupled with the Concerto is the Comedy overture – The Jolly Miller. This is tinted with comedic light music strains and with flecks of the baroque-folkloric. But Brian doesn’t stint some bold percussive comment and his variation form schema is both knowing and successful. The Eighteenth Symphony dates from 1961. It’s a compact, fourteen-minute work of implacable and driven surety. Even the Adagio is quite terse and tense in a forward moving way – and pits a solo viola against low brass and tolling percussion. Timbres and sonorities are never opaque. The last movement of the three embraces a brassy march and slower more decisively withdrawn material. Once again Brian unleashes percussion and brass – occasionally at wearisome levels – but the ambiguous mid-air ending compels attention – and deserves retrospective probing in the light of what has gone on before.

So it’s a warm welcome to this bargain price reissue. I’ve not yet mentioned the performances. Marat Bisengaliev proves as remarkable as one had remembered in the concerto, bringing intimacy and daemonic control throughout, warmly and sensitively accompanied by Friend and the forces of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. No caveats.

Jonathan Woolf

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