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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. 2014, Studio 5, Russian State TV and Radio Company Kultura, Moscow, Russia
NAXOS 8.573408 [69:51]

I recall in the late 1970s reading Kenneth Eastaugh’s biography ‘Havergal Brian: The Making of a Composer’ and feeling thoroughly saddened by the catalogue of disappointments Brian had endured in his compositional life. Having been used to hearing only a small number of Brian recordings on vinyl LP and most of these performed by school/amateur orchestras such as the City of Hull Youth Symphony Orchestra (Gough and Davey LPs - later reissued on Cameo Classics) and Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra (review) part of me felt that this music couldn’t be that good if no professional orchestras could be persuaded to take Brian’s works into the recording studio. At first hearing Brian's music can seem too dark, over dense and rather impenetrable but I persisted and became fascinated. There were some early professional recordings of Brian notably from the RLPO under Charles Groves in 1977 and Charles Mackerras in 1987 (review review) and the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Lionel Friend on Hyperion in 1988 (Helios CDH55029) then things went rather silent on the recording front.

Requiring a colossal number of singers and musicians the vast proportions of the Symphony No. 1The Gothic’ often described as a masterwork seemed to dominate and overshadow everything else Brian had written. Who would believe it? In 2011 the mighty Gothic was performed at the BBC Proms under Martyn Brabbins to significant acclaim with a recording of the performance released later that year on Hyperion (review). This seemed to kick-start activity in the recording studios and now a substantial quantity of Brian’s music has become readily available thanks to adventurous programming from record labels such as Naxos, Lyrita, Dutton Epoch and Toccata Classics. Brian’s music is still missing from concert programme’s but that is a factor that applies to a large majority of worthy British composers; not just to Brian. Only when Britain’s premier orchestras such as the London Symphony Orchestra and Hallé start regularly programming Brian’s works can we then say that his time has really come.

On this latest Naxos release performed by the New Russia State Symphony Orchestra under Alexander Walker there are four symphonies. Symphonies Nos 28 and 29 are world première recordings according to the accompanying notes. Beginning with the Symphony No. 6 (Sinfonia Tragica) composed in 1948 all the symphonies on this release were completed in Brian’s marvellously fertile, final twenty-year compositional period which produced no fewer than twenty-six symphonies, four operas and a number of other substantial orchestral works. The Havergal Brian Society ‘compositions by date’ list shows that Brian completed five symphonies in 1967/68 which were the final two years of his compositional life including three contained on this release: the Symphonies Nos. 28, 29 and 31.

Lasting slightly less than twenty-minutes the opening work is the Symphony No. 6 titled Sinfonia Tragica. This single movement score marked Brian’s first entirely instrumental symphony written in his newly conceived concise and economical style that he was to employ regularly over the next twenty years. Evidently the work originated as the orchestral prelude to the Brian’s abandoned opera project based on the play Deirdre of the Sorrows by Irish playwright John Millington Synge. Not for the faint-hearted this uncompromising work is rife with determination, high energy and dark menace. This is its second commercial recording; the first was on Lyrita.
Written by the ninety-one year old Brian in 1967 the four movement Symphony No. 28 (Sinfonia in C minor) bears a dedication to Robert Simpson the composer, BBC producer and broadcaster who championed Brian during his years at the Corporation. It seems that Brian initially described the work, lasting only fourteen minutes, as a divertimento before deciding on the title of Sinfonia in C minor. Here Brian has created intensely determined, squally music with the rather ominous character of a perilous sea voyage.

From the same year the magnificent Symphony No. 29 in E flat major is dedicated to Welsh sculptor Robert Thomas who modelled a bronze bust of the composer. In the booklet notes John Pickard considers the four movement score as “perhaps Brian’s most lyrical work.” This is indeed sweepingly lyrical music, positive and boisterous with a sense of ceremonial grandeur especially evident in the Finale. Contrasting in disposition is the boldly determined, almost war-like second movement Lento cantabile sempre.

From 1968 the final work on the release - the Symphony No. 31 - is another single movement score whose quality demonstrates that the creative juices of the ninety-one year old composer were still richly flowing. It lasts just under thirteen minutes. In the notes John Pickard explains that the work is “a free polyphonic fantasia based on the simplest material”. The main body of the music swings between riotous good nature and benign consolation. Brian’s writing quickly swells to a generously colourful climax which seems all over in a flash. This symphony was previously recorded by EMI Classics.

Assisted by having recorded Brian’s music previously the partnership between conductor Alexander Walker and the New Russia State Symphony Orchestra is a fruitful one. My expectations of high performance quality were fully met by these gripping accounts. Walker achieves extraordinarily intense playing that illuminates this music to its best advantage. There's excellent sound quality with the disc being especially well balanced and with good clarity. This Naxos release is a prime recommendation, de rigueur for all Brian admirers and lovers of British music alike.

Michael Cookson