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Havergal BRIAN (1876-1972)
Symphony No. 6 Sinfonia Tragica (1948) [19:53]
Symphony No. 28 (Sinfonia in C minor) (1967)* [14:00]
Symphony No. 29 in E flat major (1967)* [23:02]
Symphony No. 31 (in one movement) (1968) [12:56]
New Russia State Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Walker
rec. Studio 5, Russian State TV and Radio Company Kultura, Moscow, Russia, 20-24 May 2014
*World première recordings
NAXOS 8.573408 [69:51]

It would be difficult to review this disc of symphonies without repeating what is written in the liner-note about the circumstances of their creation — they are so extraordinary. Up until he was 72 in 1948 Brian had composed five symphonies with his symphony-writing journey beginning with the longest symphony ever recorded — there being some disagreement about it being the longest ever written. His symphony no.1 ‘Gothic’ takes over 105 minutes to perform and demands vast forces, including an orchestra of around 170 players plus over 600 singers and four soloists. He did say that he had never intended that it be performed. Unsurprisingly there have been few performances but it gave him an air of mystery and elevated him to a kind of legendary status. Despite that, fate took a hand and his music has largely been ignored though there have been periods when he had a modicum of success both before the First World War and in the 1950s when his champion, composer and BBC music producer Robert Simpson helped get him some exposure. This renewed interest sparked a fresh surge of creativity and like those rare plants that flower only after decades of inactivity Brian produced a further 27 symphonies, including several written in his 90s. This sparked a comment from Anthony Payne in his Daily Telegraph  review of the world première of Brian’s symphony no. 28 conducted by Leopold Stokowski that: "It was fascinating to contemplate the uniqueness of the event – a 91-year-old conductor learning a new work by a 91-year-old composer."

It has been said that Brian’s music owes a debt to the likes of Wagner, Bruckner, Elgar, Strauss, Mahler and Bach — who doesn’t owe a debt to Bach? — but what justification is there for saying that. It could be argued that every composer owes a debt to those who’ve gone before. It is more fruitful for the listener to sit back and enjoy the music rather than try to discern influences however tempting that may be. While it is of passing interest to mention such things one should let the music speak for itself. That said there is so much to enjoy in Brian’s music that one should have no problem in finding a lot to revel in. His Sixth Symphony is a tunefully rich concoction that satisfies on every level. It was originally conceived as an orchestral prelude to an opera which never saw the light of day. When he re-numbered his symphonies and eliminated his original ‘first’ symphony this became his number six. I particularly enjoyed his use of low woodwind to evoke the threatening-sounding moments as well as his judicious use of the tam-tam. Although there are several dark moments in this symphony which give it its subtitle ‘tragic’ it is not overwhelmingly so. If one can discern all those influences and, I hope, enjoying this symphony as I did the listener will also be reminded of Sibelius. There is another excellent alternative recording of No. 6 coupled with Brian's Symphony No. 16 on Lyrita Recorded Edition SRCD.295. This was made in 1973 by the LPO conducted by the late Myer Fredman. The work's first and for many years only performance was given by the Royal Opera House Orchestra conducted by Douglas Robinson in 1966. It can be heard on YouTube.

As if to emphasise the peaks and troughs Brian’s music experienced in his lifetime both the recordings here of symphonies nos. 28 and 29 are world premières even though they date from 1967. More than that this recording of the no. 28 is the first performance of it since the studio broadcast conducted by Stokowski back in 1973. This can be heard on Klassic Haus (KHCD-2012-061). John Pickard in his notes declares that it could be said to be the symphony’s first real performance, so distorted was Stokowski’s. Stokowski was known for his idiosyncratic and even maverick performances of so many works often played at breakneck speed and slicing minutes off scores that frequently suffered as a result. In Alexander Walker’s hands the New Russia State Symphony Orchestra make a well argued case for the symphony. It stands revealed as a remarkable creation that is full of drama with a darkly beautiful edge.

Brian completed his Symphony No. 28 in the middle of May 1967 and by 1 June had already finished the first draft of his No. 29, completing the orchestrated score in full by the end of July. This task would have made great demands on anyone at any age but it is scarcely credible that Brian did this aged 91. Symphony No. 28 has its moments of lyricism alongside its sombre nature. Its successor is dominated by a largely lyrical feel and while it is cast in a ‘classical’ four movement structure the sections are played without a break. Although the overall atmosphere is emotional there are some more ‘serious’ episodes with a martial edge that impinge on the lighter moments. This symphony is in every way a remarkable achievement for a nonagenarian.

That said his number 31 and penultimate symphonic creation was written when Brian was 92. This symphony took his liking for the single movement structure to the wire with what is described as a free polyphonic fantasia. In this short 13 minute symphony Brian shows what a master he was in treating the simplest material in an expansive way. He did this by largely concentrating on a descending four note scale with inversions, weaving a tightly complex pattern from this unlikely fabric. The result is an extremely satisfying and enjoyable work that is greater than the apparent sum of its parts.

The overriding summation of Brian’s symphonies is that his feel for melody, harmony and downright excellent tunes coupled with a total mastery of orchestration makes the neglect he experienced all the more difficult to comprehend. That extended for much of a long and fruitful career which he doggedly pursued regardless. His music is as interesting and ‘musical’ as all the other composers whose works enjoyed much more exposure throughout those decades in the twentieth century such as Elgar, Vaughan William, Bax and Walton. It really is time that the listening public took more notice of him as well as seeing his works featured more widely at the Proms and in other concert programmes. I hope this CD helps that process along for both orchestra and conductor do Brian proud. I can’t think of a better way to try his music out than by sampling four symphonies that give a good introduction to his fascinatingly broad musical world.

Steve Arloff

Previous review: Michael Cookson (Recording of the Month)


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