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Havergal BRIAN (1876-1972)
Symphony No. 6 Sinfonia Tragica (1948) [19:43]
Symphony No. 16 (1960) [17:41]
Arnold COOKE (1906-2005)

Symphony No. 3 in D (1967) [22:59]
London PO/Myer Fredman (Brian); Nicholas Braithwaite (Cooke)
rec. Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, 10 April 1973 (Brian); 7 January 1974 (Cooke). ADD
originally issued on LP as SRCS67 (Brian); SRCS78 (Cooke)
LYRITA SRCD.295 [60:26]

Experience Classicsonline


It was through the Lyrita LP containing the Sixth and Sixteenth Symphonies of Havergal Brian, together with Sir Charles Grovesí recordings of the Eighth and Ninth, that I first became acquainted with the music of this remarkable but often difficult composer. Nowadays we have a good deal more of his output available through recordings and a rounder picture of the man and his music has emerged but these pioneering accounts still have a proud place in the Brian discography.

The Sixth is one of Brianís more approachable symphonic works, perhaps because it began life as the prelude to an aborted opera, an intended setting based on Syngeís Deirdre of the Sorrows. Calum MacDonaldís quite superb note describes the music and its progression wonderfully, drawing the listener in just as much as do the performers. The second time I listened I found that I could identify quite easily from MacDonaldís lucid description the various sections of the single movement work Ė actually, itís more like three movements played continuously - and I marked the timings in pencil in the booklet for future reference. Exactly the same thing was possible with the Sixteenth Symphony so MacDonaldís notes fully justify the expression Ďa model of their kindí.

The performance of the Sixth is tremendously vivid and involving. I canít imagine that either Myer Fredman or the members of the LPO were familiar with the score prior to the recording sessions yet so far as I could tell without a score, the playing has splendid assurance and it sounds accurate and convincing. In the early stretches of the work Brianís exploration of the lower reaches of the orchestra is especially telling, as is his use of percussion. Later on (at 6:48) thereís a memorable theme for cor anglais that launches what is, effectively, the slow movement. But even more ingratiating is the violin melody at 7:34. For anyone who thinks of Brian as just a gruff, dissonant musical curmudgeon, these pages will be a real ear-opener. This middle section is quite extended but eventually irate brass and percussion dispel the lyrical mood and the violent, acerbic finale erupts (14:12). This rises to a huge climax before a Bax-like epilogue (17:52) in which a desolate cor anglais has a leading role. The music dies away, underpinned by a gong and gently pounding drums. Itís a most impressive work, impressively performed.

The Sixteenth, composed between June and August 1960, is a tougher proposition. It doesnít have the melodic immediacy of number Six so it rather lacks the obvious points of reference that a newcomer to any complex piece of music needs. This is where the value of Calum MacDonaldís notes is really felt. The work is scored for a huge orchestra, including no less than ten percussionists. Like the Sixth the work plays continuously but six short sections can be identified.

Calum MacDonald aptly describes the first of these as "a reluctant dawn". Itís followed by a more belligerent episode that achieves a massive climax. The third section is extremely varied and Brianís use of his orchestral palette is most resourceful. After a mysterious and melancholy passage and a pell-mell, virtuoso Ďanti-fugueí we come to the sixth and final section. This rises to a climax (around 16:42), which dwarfs everything that has gone before it. This is difficult music to hear and itís also difficult music to love Ė but I doubt Brian intended that we should. However, itís much less daunting than might once have been the case, I think, not least because Brianís music is more familiar than when this recording was first issued. Myer Fredman and the LPO are, once again, splendid and committed advocates.

The Brian symphonies originally appeared together on LP. For this CD issue Arnold Cookeís Third Symphony has been added. Itís an intriguing partner for the Brian symphonies but I think it works. I hadnít heard the work before.

The first of its three movements is an Allegro energico in which the choice of the second word is aptly justified. The music is brisk and often redolent of Cookeís one-time teacher, Hindemith. The lines are much cleaner than Brianís. In this performance the music is strongly projected but whereas Brianís writing is nothing if not passionate I found Cookeís music to be much less emotionally engaging.

The slow movement, which is much the longest, opens with an atmospheric melody of genuine breadth played by a solo clarinet. This idea is taken up by other wind instruments and forms the basis of much of what is to follow. The contrast between Cooke and Brian is enormous Ė but also very stimulating to the listener. Cooke displays a certain coolness and detachment, I feel, whereas Brianís music often sounds to be torn out of him. I donít say that one is therefore better than the other Ė the composers inhabit two very different worlds - but comparison and contrast is inevitable when their symphonies are juxtaposed as they are here.

The finale is, once again, energetic and strongly rhythmical. Yet again one canít help but think of Hindemith. Nicholas Braithwaite and the LPO perform the whole symphony with assurance and commitment. How do I feel after my encounter with this symphony? I donít believe that Iíve been entertained; the music is too serious for that. But then, I donít feel that Iíve been stirred; the detachment that I mentioned earlier saw to that. Itís an interesting work that Iím glad to have heard, especially in such a good performance, but I suspect Iíll find myself more compelled to return to Brianís darker creations. It was fascinating to compare the two composersí music but it was just as interesting to compare and contrast the respective booklet notes. Hugo Cole contributes a rather strait laced analysis of the Cooke symphony. Whilst technically excellent, no doubt, it didnít draw me in to the music. Phrases such as Calum MacDonaldís "shadowy, haunted country of the mind" (of Brianís Sixth) have no place in Coleís style and I wondered if I might have enjoyed the Brian less and the Cooke more if the annotators had been, as it were, reversed. Perhaps.

Be that as it may, thereís some marvellous music making on this well-filled CD and all three fine performances are presented in outstanding analogue sound. Youíre very unlikely to encounter any of these works in the concert hall so Iíd advise any adventurous collector to add this splendid CD to your collection without delay.

John Quinn

See also review by Rob Barnett





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