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Havergal BRIAN (1876-1972)
Symphony No. 4, 'Das Siegeslied' (1932-33) [49:49]
Symphony No. 12 (1957) [11:08]
Jana Valásová (soprano); Slovak Philharmonic Choir; Slovak National Opera Chorus; Echo Youth Choir; Cantus Mixed Choir; Czech Philharmonic Choir (4), Brno Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Adrian Leaper.
rec. Slovak Radio, Bratislava, 3-8 February 1992 (4); 10 February 1992 (12). DDD
NAXOS 8.570308 [60:57]

I have always been fascinated by the music of Havergal Brian. I remember with affection the Charles Groves/RLPO recordings on LP, now available as part of an EMI twofer (5757822). I am more partial to this music than is my colleague Michael Cookson in his review. The EMI set contains symphonies Nos. 7-9 and 31, plus the Comedy Overture, The Tinker's Wedding. The present release, too, is a reissue as it originally appeared on Marco Polo 8.223447.
The Fourth Symphony is one of Brian's works that tends towards the gargantuan; his Gothic Symphony is the most famous example of this from his pen. For this Symphony, Brian chooses to set the 68th Psalm, and he sets it in German. The text thereof is rather complex in that it includes passages of darkness, violence and doom … all the ingredients for a varied musical ride, then! The fate of unbelievers in the Almighty is not a pleasant one in this particular vision. Here, the 'rebellious dwell in a dry Land' and 'the wicked perish at the presence of the Lord'; not much sweet Jesus forgiveness around here, then. Moreover, 'God shall wound the head of his enemies' and 'their feet will be dipped in the blood of thine enemies, and the tongue of thy dogs in the same' (track 10). Like Beethoven and, especially, Brahms, Brian was not of the received wisdom school of religiosity but sought instead to find a spirituality of his own.
The orchestra includes basset-clarinets, alto flute, two oboi d'amore, bass oboe, pedal clarinet, to name but a few, all in addition to the several choruses! Brian is a master orchestrator, though, and deploys his forces with the skill of a Mahler. The first movement, marked Maestoso, actually begins in the style of a hugely-orchestrated military march before the chorus opens with its announcement, 'Ein Psalmslied Davids, vorzusingen' ('To the Chief Musician – A Psalm of David'). True, the orchestral strings sound a little stretched at first and the recording seems a tad congested - believe me, you need all the clarity you can get here! - but neither aspect is overly disruptive. In fact, one might argue - somewhat tenuously! - that the shortcomings actually help the words of the second stanza, 'As smoke is driven away' … The choruses sings superbly at the dynamically contrasting (quiet) 'Du gabst, O Gott, einen gnädigen Regen' ('Thou, O God, didst send a plentiful rain'). It’s a shame that their words are garbled at the faster following lines, 'Der Herr gab das Wort' ('The Lord gave the word'). Indeed, track 4 seems rather scrambled and unsure of itself throughout its brief duration. Better is the uncredited placatory solo violin at track 5 that ushers in the solo soprano and subsequently duets with her. Vlasková is adequate rather than radiant here.
Interestingly, Brian opts to paint the Chariots of God with high dissonance - using his edgiest harmonies so far - before composing a graphic and near-mechanistic depiction of their arrival. An imposing organ introduces the words of the Lord: the rather revolting tongues of dogs passage quoted above.
Towards the end, there is a little more of the crowding to the recording noticed earlier (tr. 11). But, to compensate, there is a moment of pure silken magic at 'Die Fürsten von Ägypten werden kommen' ('The Princes shall come out from Egypt').
The Twelfth Symphony, on the surface, could hardly be more different. It lasts just over ten minutes, and is in five sections. The Introduction is gorgeously light-of-foot and yet mysterious, leading to a contrapuntal Allegro maestoso. Most impressive here is the transition to the A Tempo Marcia Lento. MacDonald's description of 'a shadow falls across the music' is very apt. The Funeral March has an internal momentum - Brian says a lot in a short space of time here – that leads into the string-based, placatory Adagio espressivo. Well performed - each note 'placed' - brass fanfares lead into the brief finale, full of jagged themes that give the rather bizarre effect of a danse macabre trying desperately to find some joie de vivre!. The work's final gesture is a masterstroke … and I won't spoil it for you.
Detailed and perceptive booklet notes from Malcolm MacDonald complete an important release. A companion Naxos disc, comprising the Violin Concerto and the Jolly Miller Overture (8.557775), makes for similarly stimulating listening. The famous Gothic Symphony is on 8.557418/19.
The use of Charles Mottram's painting, The Great Day of His Wrath on the front cover seems remarkably apposite to the disc's contents. An intensely valuable disc.
Colin Clarke

British Composers on Naxos page


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