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Havergal BRIAN (1876-1972)
In Memoriam (1910) [18:50]
Festal Dance (1908) [6:16]
Symphony No.17 (1960-1961) [13:36]
Symphony No.32 (1968) [20:56]
RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra/Adrian Leaper
rec. National Concert Hall, Dublin 15-16 June 1992. DDD.
NAXOS 8.572020 [59:37]

Experience Classicsonline

It is hard to imagine that when Havergal Brian began to compose his 17th Symphony some five decades had passed since the Festal Overture. The composer was a ‘young’ 84 years old. The work was begun in the latter part of 1960 and was completed in early January. The liner-notes point out that in the previous twelve months he had been extremely active - completing Symphonies 13-16. Each of these had been in a single movement format, calling for a large orchestra. No. 17 was a little different. Although still in a single movement, the orchestra is somewhat smaller - in spite of a large percussion section and a pair of tubas - and the duration is quite short. In fact, this work lasts just over thirteen minutes with an unbalanced scale of movements: the opening Adagio-Allegro last for over eight minutes, the final allegro for under two. Malcolm MacDonald gives an excellent précis of this work which is worth quoting in full:-‘[This] is one of Brian’s most abstract and elliptical utterances: there are fleeting hints of Romantic imagery and mysterious hymnody, but in general it might be considered as a species of polyphonic fantasia in several clearly-defined sections, a kind of orchestral the big keyboard toccatas of Bach...’

The music opens with an adagio that is described as being redolent of Celtic Romanticism. Yet this is soon blown away by the timpani leading to virile and forceful music that is occasionally tinged with reflection.

The ‘lento’ is not a relaxing listening experience. The composer chose to use a variety of moods seemingly juxtaposed in a haphazard manner, but actually cunningly contrived to achieve an unsettling effect. There is a grotesque march here, and a romantic interlude there: all thrown around in abrupt contrast.

Certainly there has been some critical concern over the final movement which just does not really seem to do anything or go anywhere. It starts off well and then appears to become a little confused. It is not surprising that adjectives such as ‘enigmatic’ and ‘elusive’ are used about this music.

Yet something about this symphony impresses and moves me: I fear it should not do so, but it does. There is an uneasy coherence that emerges from the disjointed and varied material the composer has chosen to use.

Havergal Brian’s last Symphony is one which I have admired since first hearing the Marco Polo release of this work in the early nineteen-nineties. As Malcolm MacDonald points out, this was in fact the last work of any kind that Brian completed. He was only 92 years old at this date. The work was composed in 1968 whilst Brian was staying in his council flat overlooking Shoreham Beach. I recall when I first listened to this work some eighteen years ago, wondering if it would be ‘valedictory’ or would represent some kind of ‘summing up’ or epitome of his career. Macdonald suggests that this is not the case - it is not a last will and testament. However it does continue to explore the ‘Brianist’ symphonic development and challenges the listener with its dichotomy between darkness and affirmation.

The work is ostensibly written in four reasonably-balanced movements with the ‘adagio’ placed second and the scherzo third. However, formally it is usually perceived as being in two ‘large halves’ - the first being brooding and melancholic, with the second half energetic and positive. It is hardly the work of an elderly man. This symphony has been described by one reviewer as having a Nielsen-like conflict alongside one of Brian’s trademark funeral marches. There is a wide range of mood and musical device in this symphony - from the dance music of the scherzo to the polyphonic final movement.

The two other works on this CD are impressive. The first is the tone poem In Memoriam (1910) and the second is the sparkling Festal Dance.

For many composers a work of the size and seriousness of In Memoriam would have been cast as a 'symphony'. Certainly, Brian makes use of a large orchestra of Straussian proportions. The formal sense of the work is in three scenes; or movements, preceded by an introduction. This is funeral music that refuses to be totally pessimistic: there is a positive feel to much of this music.

The genesis and conception of this tone poem is convoluted. It has been suggested that the late King was its subject. Or was it a musical friend from the Potteries? There are a number of musical allusions - for example, the National Anthem. A number of inscriptions on the score muddy the waters. Furthermore, there appears to have been a written 'programme' to the work appended to the score - but this has been removed. Brian wanted his music to be judged as absolute music - not as programmatic.

It received its first performance in Edinburgh during December 1921. The Scottish Orchestra was conducted by Landon Ronald.

The Festal Dance has a complicated history too. It was originally the final movement of the discarded ‘Fantastic Symphony’. It was published in 1914 and first performed at a concert in Birmingham conducted by Granville Bantock. The Symphony was also mined for the Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme. However, the scherzo and the slow movement are lost. The finale was subtitled Dance of the Farmer’s Wife.

The resultant dance is certainly very ‘festal’ in its exuberance and sheer vitality. The quality of the orchestration is superb with a heavy reliance on the percussion section. Surely this would be a fine opening piece for a ‘Prom’ Concert, if only the BBC would look in Havergal Brian’s direction now and again.

The programme notes are both extensive and excellent: this is to be expected from Malcolm MacDonald who is the leading authority on the music of Havergal Brian. The sound quality is outstanding, the playing is convincing and the programme is ultimately satisfying. My only concern is that most Havergal Brian enthusiasts will already have this CD in the Marco Polo edition or will have downloaded it from Amazon. One must hope that this present release will encourage new listeners and that people who already own a copy of this disc will be prepared to buy a ‘back-up’ copy!

John France








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