Havergal BRIAN (1876 – 1972)
Tone Poem: In Memoriam (1910) [18:50]
Festal Dance (1908) [6:16]
Symphony No.17 (1960/1961) [13:36]
Symphony No.32 in A flat (1968) [20:56]
RTE National Symphony Orchestra/Adrian Leaper
rec. 15-16 June 1992, National Concert Hall, Dublin, DDD
Re–issue of Marco Polo 8.223481
NAXOS 8.572020 [59:37]

Another welcome re–issue from the Marco Polo Havergal Brian recordings of the 1990s, and a particularly nice juxtaposition of early and late works.

Although described as a tone poem, In Memoriam doesn’t have a programme. It is a long funeral march, or a study in slow march rhythms. Whatever the impetus behind the music, this is a very strong inspiration, deeply felt and expertly carried out. There is a particularly heart-warming central section. The coda is particularly moving in its simplicity. How many composers could create such a large slow movement which could stand alone? Malcolm MacDonald, in his excellent note, gives a detailed account of the genesis of the music.

As the title suggests, Festal Dance is bright and breezy, and were it not for the large orchestration this could almost pass as a piece of light music. But this is Havergal Brian and the concept of light music wasn’t for him, even though he did write some pieces of a lighter nature. This is Last Night of the Proms extrovert! It would be a real winner with that audience.

Fifty years, and 16 Symphonies later, we arrive at the 17th Symphony, and it’s a typically argumentative affair, with a brooding slow introduction before launching into a big, full-blooded, Allegro. At first hearing it might seem somewhat disjointed, but on better acquaintance will deliver all its glories, especially the subtle construction and working out of its ideas. After this, the other two movements together play for less than half the duration of the first, but what riches there are here. The slow movement is another of Brian’s measured marches, with some fine writing for the horns, but just as the argument is beginning to unwind the, very short, finale bursts in and brings things to a swift conclusion. Despite the obvious brevity of the work, there’s a feast of music here and the ending comes at just the right moment for the progress of the music. On paper the 17th Symphony appears to be wrongly balanced, but one thing Brian understands is content and form and what makes a satisfactory composition. Therefore, despite an almost 9 minute first movement and a less than 2 minute finale, the proportions are perfect!

The 32nd Symphony, Brian’s last, consists of four movements, each playing for about 5 minutes. It’s music of defiance. There’s nothing valedictory here, nor, at 92, does the composer show any signs of losing his grip on composition. It’s a cogently argued work, dark and very serious at times, and even when Brian lightens the textures and feeling, such as in the scherzo, there’s still an undercurrent of worry and disturbance.

Adrian Leaper is a conductor who should really be working regularly in the UK. One wonders why the land of his birth ignores him. I well remember him directing a superb Rachmaninov 2nd Symphony with the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra some 15, or so, years ago and he proved himself to be a splendid conductor with vision and insight. He directs fine performances here of some very challenging repertoire, but he has obviously given much time to his interpretations and has conveyed to his players exactly what he wants because one feels that he gets it. It doesn’t look as if Brian will be getting any new recordings in the near future so we must be grateful to Naxos for giving us this, and other, Marco Polo, recordings, and reminding us of what an important figure Brian was in English music. Performances, recording and notes are all that you could want.

Bob Briggs

see also review by John France

What an important figure Brian was in English music - performances, recording and notes are all that you could want.