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Havergal BRIAN (1876-1972)
Symphony No. 10 in C minor (1954) [16:10]
English Suite No. 3 (1919-21) [17:38]
Concerto for Orchestra (1964) [15:42]
Symphony No. 30 in B flat minor (1967) [14:54]
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
David Bednall (organ)
rec. RSNO Centre. Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, 15-16 Sept 2010. DDD

Havergal Brian’s Tenth Symphony has been recorded before: it was among the pioneering recordings made by the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra in the 1970s – a set of prodigious achievements by those young musicians (review). Otherwise, all the pieces on this Dutton Epoch disc are receiving their recorded premieres.

The Tenth Symphony is scored for a very large orchestra indeed. It’s cast in a single movement but Malcolm MacDonald points out in his excellent notes that not only does this movement bear a ‘distinct likeness’ to sonata form but also effectively comprises an ‘implied, vestigial four-movement form’. The imposing march material heard at the very start provides the foundation for what is to follow. The implied first movement makes a great deal of martial rhythms but there are also contrasts, most notably a passage of stillness (5:35); even here, though, the stillness doesn’t dissipate the tension that has characterised the writing up to now. There follows a tempestuous Allegro con fuoco (6:58). This could be taken as the symphony’s scherzo section but there’s nothing remotely jocular about this scherzo. On the contrary, the use of a wind machine and a thunder machine confirm, if such confirmation were needed, that this is actually a musical storm. The Lento section (10:09) is dominated by a highly expressive violin solo. Indeed, even when the music achieves a strong climax the solo violin is still much in evidence. Finally (at 12:40) Brian returns to martial music although this is not a straight reprise of the opening material. In the last couple of minutes the symphony achieves a conclusion in which stillness and tension are combined and the solo violin returns. This is a gripping symphony. It lasts only just over 16 minutes but one has the sense that a huge amount of ground has been covered in this fairly short duration.

The other symphony in Martyn Brabbins’ programme is the Thirtieth, an even more compact composition written some 13 years later. This, too, requires a substantial orchestra. It’s in two movements which play without a break. Malcolm MacDonald tells us that just before the symphony was composed Brian was sketching an opera on the subject of Oedipus at Colonus. That project never came to fruition but MacDonald speculates that some of the music may well have found its way into this symphony. I like his description of the teeming first movement as ‘the sort of music in which, it seems, anything can happen’. The music seems disjointed and episodic yet at the same time it all seems to flow. The writing is highly contrapuntal and the scoring is extremely imaginative – though when is Brian’s orchestration anything other than imaginative? Much is made of martial rhythms and the percussion department is kept in gainful employment. There are martial characteristics in the second movement too. To me much of this turbulent music seems dark and troubled but I may be wrong about that. The coda (7:03) is grand, if slightly forbidding.

The Concerto for Orchestra is a complex work – or, at least, I find it so. It’s in three sections, which play continuously. The first is turbulent and packed with counterpoint and incident. To my ears the incidents don’t always seem related to one another but I’m sure that’s because I’ve not yet got to the bottom of this score; I wonder, in all honesty, if I ever will. Much of the music in what is, in effect, the slow movement (from 6:36) is as lyrical as the previous section had been tense. The final section (13:32) is vivacious but is capped by an imposing, broadly-paced coda for the full orchestra. You’ll have gathered that I haven’t found this an easy work with which to come to terms; I need to try harder.

The English Suite No. 3 is an intriguing piece which more than once made me think of Brian as the English Charles Ives. Apparently it was inspired by the countryside of Sussex where Brian was living when he composed this music. It was written soon after The Tigers (1916-18). A comment by Malcolm MacDonald is very apposite. He suggests that while The Tigers ‘holds up a cracked mirror to military life, so English Suite No. 3 … views the rural idyll very much through a distorting lens.’ The first of the five movements, ‘Ancient Village’ may well lull the listener into a sense of false security for here everything is tranquil and “traditionally pastoral”. Perceptively, however, MacDonald suggests that the music is innocent ‘because [the village] is clearly devoid of human occupation’. The following four movements are, as it were, populated with characters and it’s here that the fun starts. Brian’s music is often quirky (as in ‘Epithalamium’) and sometimes ironic and fragmented as well (‘Merry Peasant’). The most interesting movement is the fourth, ‘The Stonebreaker’. Here, MacDonald suggests, Brian may well have had in mind the 1857 painting of that name by Henry Wallis which depicts a man who appears to be asleep but who, in fact, has been worked to death. The piece revolves around a noble tune. As it plays, various sections of the orchestra appear to try to disrupt it or distract us from it with spiky interjections. Eventually, however, the tune prevails in grandeur, reinforced by an ad lib organ part. This Suite is fascinating and intriguing.

So here we have four highly original scores by Havergal Brian. They appear in very convincing performances by the RSNO and Martyn Brabbins. All of the music was surely new to the orchestra but they deliver it with evident assurance and commitment. On the evidence of other recordings Brabbins himself is becoming something of a Brian expert so the music is safe in his hands. The recorded sound is very good indeed. This music frequently teems with detail and engineer Dexter Newman has produced recordings that allow us to observe the detail and yet at the same time to appreciate the bigger picture. Malcolm MacDonald’s notes are as expert and as clearly written as you’d expect.

The disc has been made with financial support from the Havergal Brian Society. They are to be congratulated on translating their enthusiasm for the composer into such tangible terms and thereby allowing the wider public to get to know this music.

John Quinn

Previous review: Rob Barnett



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