Havergal BRIAN (1876 – 1972)
Concert Overture: For Valour (1902/1906) [13:31]
Comedy Overture: Dr Merryheart (1911/1912) [16:07]
Symphony No.11 (1954) [24:38]
Symphony No.15 in A (1960) [22:54]
RTE National Symphony Orchestra/Tony Rowe (For Valour; No.15); Adrian Leaper (Merryheart; No.11)
rec. 6 September 1993 (Leaper); 27 May 1997 (Rowe) DDD
Re–issue of Marco Polo 8.223588
NAXOS 8.572014 [77:10]

When I was 12 years old, I saw a piece on a TV News programme concerning a very old composer who was about to have the professional première of a work he’d written nearly fifty years earlier. I assume that it was a serious piece of TV journalism, but all I can remember is that we were told that it required more performers than any work ever written and that there would probably be more people on stage than in the hall. This single, and very ill-advised, comment probably did Brian more harm than good because it put into the public’s mind that here was some kind of lunatic who was getting the only performance he would ever get, and gave the impression that all his works were on a similar scale. After that performance of the Gothic Symphony, under Boult at the Albert Hall – “ but just think what Toscanini would have made of it” is supposed to have been Brian’s ungracious comment afterwards – I eagerly awaited the occasional broadcast of one of his Symphonies. Over the years I bought the legal, and pirate, recordings of his works. I was lucky enough to study with Harold Truscott, the expert on Brian’s music, and subsequently hear his own recorded archive of the composer’s works.

Over the 45 years since that performance of the Gothic I’ve listened to Brian on and off, and although there is much fine work in his output, I find myself drawn to the shorter Symphonies – those following Das Siegeslied (No.4) – finding the earlier ones to be sprawling and lacking in real focus. It was Marco Polo’s work in recording many of the Symphonies which probably did more for his cause than even the BBC’s performing them all.

This disk brings together four interesting works from the very earliest years and the maturity of this fascinating composer. The two Overtures were recorded, together with six other early orchestral works, by the City of Hull Youth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Geoffrey Heald-Smith (re–issued on 2 CDs (for the price of one) – Cameo RR2CD 1331/2) and these recordings were as valiant an attempt to put Brian in the focus of the record-buying public as were the ones by the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra. But Brian needs professional musicians if only because his music is very difficult to play. For Valour is very Elgarian in terms of heroism, but quite un–Elgarian when it comes to introspection. There are a couple of passages which, heard in isolation, could pass muster for the older composer, but this is not Elgarian in any way! What keeps Brian’s music apart from Elgar, and, indeed, all other British composers, and not just of his time, is the unique way he musters and handles his material. For Valour is a fine example of this. Starting with a real valiant call to arms, the music quickly moves between thoughtfulness to mocking march, then patriotic fervour. It’s thickly scored, much of Brian is, but Rowe makes a very persuasive case and is very sympathetic when dealing with the full forces. The performance has a great deal of spontaneity, giving the impression of a concert performance – once through, so to speak – but I cannot believe that this was done without editing. If it was then a huge bravo for the players. Dr Merryheart is a comedy overture, but not of the belly-laugh kind of Eric Fenby’s Rossini on Ilkla’ Moor; it’s more a comedy based on a fantastic, and humorous, sketch. Like all Brian it’s thickly scored so you might just wonder where the comedy lies, but it’s in there, you just have to listen for it.

The two Symphonies are made of sterner stuff, if you can believe that. The Eleventh starts where the Tenth finished, with the same three notes – in inversion – and a very serious Adagio grows from them. This is searching for something and what it finds is a joyous scherzo! That juxtaposition of material is one of those odd things about Brian. March rhythms come to the fore, the march is seldom far from Brian’s mind, and the music becomes disjointed and suddenly the movement is the longest of the three, accounting for three-fifths of the whole, ending with a long slow section, full of longing and loneliness. The finale breaks out into another of Brian’s English Dances and ends with a march. The scoring of this Symphony is more transparent than in some of his other works, but it’s still full. I wonder if the experience of hearing the BBC broadcasts of the Eighth Symphony on 1st and 2nd February 1954, by Boult and the London Philharmonic, spurred him on to write another Symphony. The Eleventh was started on 10 February 1954. Perhaps it also prompted him to have a careful look at his orchestration.

The Fifteenth Symphony has something of both the Eleventh and its predecessor, the Fourteenth, about it. By the way, when are we going to have a recording of No.14? It is one of the very best, and most searching, of all Brian’s Symphonies. The Fifteenth has sections built of stone, which alternate with more delicate passages.

I wonder why I have written the above because Brian’s music defies description. Of all the composers whose work I know, his is the work for which the hippy word phantasmagorical might have been coined. Brian cannot be put into categories. It’s obvious he’s an English composer, but he stands apart, his physical isolation and neglect helping to build both the man and his work. After the early successes his music took on a darker hue, his orchestration became richer and a deep seriousness came to the forefront of his thinking.

These are fine performances, lacking, perhaps, the last ounce or two of bite, but the music was then, as it would be now, totally new to the musicians. The recordings are exemplary and the booklet contains a very long, and interesting, essay by Malcolm Macdonald.

Brian has been neglected, for all the wrong reasons, for too long and these Naxos re–issues of original Marco Polo recordings are invaluable. At the price they’re a steal and should be on every record shelf, standing proud beside the English music we already know and love – Elgar, Bantock, Parry, Rubbra, Alwyn and so many more. Do not miss this, it’s too important. And what’s more, it’s very good.

Bob Briggs

It’s very good.