With the gradual reissue of the original Marco Polo releases
of Havergal Brian’s symphonies on the bargain-priced Naxos label, it is to be
hoped that more people will explore the music of this fascinating
but still largely under-appreciated maverick English composer.
The original Marco Polo CDs were tantalisingly labelled the
Brian Cycle but only 11 of the canon of 32 have appeared
to date, leaving many still unrecorded. One can only hope that
more recordings are lurking in the Naxos archives awaiting release.
The symphony presented here was actually Brian’s third. The
mighty Gothic Symphony, released on Marco Polo (8.223280/81)
and more recently on Naxos (8.557418/19) was originally his second but the work Brian
wrote as his First Symphony, A Fantastic Symphony, he
partly discarded. The Fantastic Symphony’s first and
last movements were rescued as separate works and are also available
in the Marco Polo series – the Fantastic Variations on
8.223731 with symphonies 20 and 25, and the Festal Dance
on 8.223481 with symphonies 17 and 32.
The Second Symphony was written in 1930-31 and is cast in
a traditional four-movement design, albeit with the movements
playing without a break. The orchestral forces required, by
normal standards are vast (16 horns are asked for) but, in comparison
with the gargantuan orchestra demanded in the Gothic
Symphony, somewhat modest. Always attracted to German literature,
Brian took Goethe’s drama Götz von Berlichingen as his
initial inspiration, although he denied any specific programme
to the symphony.
The first movement is one of those rugged symphonic movements
cast in granite that listeners familiar with Brian’s work will
recognise. The slow movement is the least successful for me.
It seems a little too loosely put together and I found it difficult
giving it my full attention on repeated listenings. The scherzo
is altogether more successful, with antiphonal horns, drum-like
ostinati and a sense of Brucknerian excitement. The finale
is a funeral march-cum-rondo and, at nearly 20 minutes duration,
the emotional heart of the symphony.
The disc opens with the only work Brian wrote for brass alone:
the very short Festival Fanfare, dated Christmas 1967
and written at the suggestion of an American admirer. The Fanfare
was also first performed in the United
States – in Urbana, Illinois - in May 1972. It is an attractive but unremarkable piece
but shows the affinity to orchestral brass that Brian had displayed
throughout his long composing career.
the brass-only Fanfare received
an excellent performance, I’m afraid
that of the symphony leaves a great
deal to be desired. While other CDs
in the Brian series were made in Bratislava,
Dublin, Glasgow and Kiev, this is the
only one (so far) from the Moscow Symphony
Orchestra. This orchestra was only founded
in 1989 and so was seven years old at
the time of this recording, trying to
develop at a time when Russia was losing
many of its best musicians to more secure
and better paid jobs in the West following
the dismantling of the Soviet Union.
The MSO has never, to my ears, achieved
the standards of its more senior counterparts
in Russia and seems much more at home
in the many excellent film music recordings
that have appeared on Marco Polo and
Naxos than it does in this symphony.
The main problem is that the upper strings
just don’t seem to have the notes under
their fingers, with sometimes disastrous
results for ensemble and tuning. In
addition, the very studio-bound sound
produced in the Mosfilm recording venue
helps matters not at all, being rather
dry and unforgiving, with little ambience
around the sound. However, with no alternative
recordings available, this disc serves
to show what a unique force Havergal
Brian was in British music and connoisseurs
of off-the-beaten-track music from England
will find much to enthral them here.
see also Review
by Colin Clarke