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Havergal BRIAN (1876-1972)
Symphony No. 2 in E minor (1930-31) [53:28]
Festival Fanfare (1967) [1:44]

Moscow Symphony Orchestra/Tony Rowe
rec. Mosfilm Studio, Moscow, May 1996. DDD

Booklet notes in English
NAXOS 8.570506 [55:12]


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.


While 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.


Derek Warby


see also Review by Colin Clarke





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