If there is a heaven, then surely Havergal Brian must be sitting in a particularly comfy deckchair in front of the great celestial sea scratching his head in good natured confusion. After all, this was the composer who wrote twenty-seven of his thirty-two symphonies after the age of 72 with little or no expectation of them ever being heard, let alone recorded and appreciated. In his own lifetime barely any of his music was commercially recorded. In the space of the last twenty years the large majority are available. Naxos, or at least its full-price sister label Marco Polo, started the trend with what seemed to be an abortive Havergal Brian edition. Gratitude for being able to hear these large and complex scores was often balanced with a nagging concern that rehearsal and studio time was limited with often less than wholly persuasive results. The baton passed to Dutton and Toccata with excellently prepared discs and the crowning glory was Hyperion’s superb preservation of the historic performance of the mighty Gothic Symphony at the 2011 Proms.
It seemed that Naxos had little new to offer except to re-release the Marco Polo discs at bargain price. This new disc comes as something of a surprise then - precisely because it is all new. Better, still, not only are two of the symphonies receiving world premiere recordings, but this is by some comfortable distance the best engineered and performed disc in the Naxos/Havergal Brian catalogue. So good that by those criteria alone it gives the more expensive Dutton et al
discs a good run for their money.
Coming rather late to this reviewing party detailed comment is possibly somewhat redundant - Brian aficionados will have bought the disc hot off the press and rightly so. All that remains is to highlight some extra detail that has been unrepresented in other reviews. Attention, not surprisingly has centred on the triumvirate of Symphonies that form a triptych. Thank goodness for liner-writer Malcolm MacDonald who as ever illuminates and informs. He sees the three works as irrevocably linked with common threads and a sense of development and an over-arching structure that leads from the upheaval that opens No.22 through to the gritty martial triumph that closes No.24. As recorded here the total playing time of the three works is just shy of forty minutes and they were composed over a nine month period from late 1964 to Summer 1965 - an extraordinary achievement for a man in his late eighties.
For the Brian newcomer these works embody just about everything that fascinates or infuriates about the composer. Even with repeated listenings - and MacDonald’s detailed guidance (especially in his 3 volume guide to the symphonies) these works remain stubbornly individual in the handling of form, harmony and orchestration. Critics would say clumsy; acolytes strikingly individual. What I do feel is important is to juxtapose these works - and indeed just about any of the later symphonies against the English Suite No.1 (and indeed many other of the early works so convincingly championed on the Toccata discs) provided here as a filler. The term ‘filler’ implies something of lesser stature but in fact this work, at twenty-five minutes for its six movements, is the equal of Symphonies 22 and 23 combined with a minute to spare. The Suite shows quite clearly that Brian, sixty years before he wrote the symphonies, had an exceptional command of the orchestra allied to an impressive melodic gift that made him the equal of any of his British contemporaries with the obvious exception of Elgar. This needs to be borne in mind when considering the angular grittiness of the later works; clearly they were written that way by choice rather than any amateurish fumbling.
The Suite, more easily consonant and ‘obvious’ is a good way of gauging the quality of the recording and execution here. The playing of the New Russian State Symphony Orchestra under Alexander Walker is a consistent delight. Not only is there real technical polish but sympathy to the genre and personality to boot. I usually lament the passing of the old “Soviet Sound” but I doubt it would be wholly appropriate in this instance. Try the rather glorious brass choir - ideally rich and resonant - in the penultimate movement Hymn.
This is beautifully voiced and manages to hit the perfect balance between sentiment and dignity. Elsewhere I was particularly impressed with the principal bassoon; listen for the pawky good humour in the Suite’s opening Characteristic March
or the passage towards the middle of Symphony No.24 [track 5 7:40] when it duets with the horn. Actually the quality of the solo playing from all sections is consistently high. The sparkling orchestration of the Interlude
is beautifully caught; perhaps a tad synthetically close but not distractingly so. This is such instantly attractive music that Brian’s celebrity culled from the first London performance in 1907 under Sir Henry Wood is both easily understood and fully justified. The orchestral suite was something of a musical dinosaur relegated to the backwaters - as far as ‘serious’ music was concerned - of the light music composers of the inter-war years. The Suite’s ‘problem’ is that it was not short or easy enough to be part of the repertoire of light music ensembles or big and serious enough to merit inclusion in the seasons of full symphony orchestras. A major part of Brian’s lack of further public success was simply down to the impracticality of most of his major scores. According to the Havergal Brian website none
of his symphonies requires fewer than 90 players and even the ones under consideration here require triple woodwind and full brass - even when they last less than ten minutes. The most sympathetic concert promoter is going to have night-sweats trying to justify the expense to his management board.
So if we take the Suite as a point of departure - a fixed reference and bearing in the musical firmament - the journey to the sound-world of the late symphonies becomes ever more remarkable. MacDonald neatly sums this up by saying; “[Brian’s] musical imagination [by the time of writing the symphonies] is simply vastly more experienced, much quicker in motion and incomparably richer.” The key word to my mind is ‘experience’ allied with a “rugged individuality” that MacDonald refers to elsewhere in the note. In all three of the symphonies Brian seems to be saying; “this is what I want to say and this is the way in which I want to say it.” That late in his life he makes no concessions to the listener or player and it is up to you in either role to find the path through the thicket of his invention ... and a thicket it most certainly is. I have delayed this review in the hope that repeated listenings would gradually reveal more of these works’ secrets. Perhaps it is my failing but I’m still struggling - however, I do have a strong sense - as I do with most of the Brian I have encountered that this is a powerfully impressive composer who has something important to say - albeit often in a language I do not yet understand.
The only ‘competition’ for any of these works on discs comes from the remarkable Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra in Symphony No.22 and the less remarkable City of Hull Youth Orchestra in the English Suite No.1. The LSSO performance I know from the Klassichaus FLAC download and it is strikingly fine although this has been deleted in favour of the Heritage release which had access to the original CBS master-tapes. It’s certainly worthy to sit alongside the new issue - John Whitmore mentions the odd break that occurs on the Naxos disc between the two movements with each given a different track where the LSSO present the work as continuous. My sense is that this is a post-production slip rather than an artistic decision. As it happens Klassichaus offer a third version - from Myer Fredman and the RPO - here coupled with the 18th
in what I think
are transfers from radio broadcasts. Certainly the sound for No.22 is murkier than that offered by either of the other versions and the playing more fallible - but somehow Brian’s emotionally charged musical world benefits from a sense of a struggle hard-won. As with most Brian I would recommend sampling “another way” and at the very low price-point for FLAC files they are well worth consideration together with this current disc.
Credit to conductor Alexander Walker for producing such convincing interpretations of music which will have been both unfamiliar and hard to bring off. Certainly this would seem to be a winning team and one that I hope Naxos will turn to again to, at long last, complete the Brian symphonic canon. To my mind one of the most rewarding and successful Naxos discs of the year.
See also reviews by Rob
Havergal Brian on Naxos