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Havergal BRIAN (1876-1972)
Symphony No. 8 in B flat minor (1949) [23.20]
Symphony No. 21 in E flat minor (1963) [29.29]
Symphony No. 26 (1966) [17.48]
New Russian Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Walker
rec. 2016, Studio 5 Russian State TV and Radio Company Kultura, Moscow
NAXOS 8.573752 [70.26]

It was back in the early 90s when Marco Polo announced that it intended to record all of Havergal Brian’s Symphonies and, I think, they began with ‘The Gothic’. In truth some of these releases seemed a little under rehearsed and it just felt somehow that we were not grasping the essence of this curious composer.

Many years earlier, in 1970, the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra released two symphonies Nos 10 and 21 relevant here because until now it was only their somewhat edgy version that we had available. Hyperion recorded in 1988 the 3rd Symphony (CDAH 55029) and Dutton have released some fine recordings including the massive 2nd Symphony under Martyn Brabbins (CDLX7330). I felt with that version that we were beginning to get the measure of Brian.

But now, with Alexander Walker we have a conductor who has recorded, I think, ten symphonies and, with this release, including the premier recording of No 26, all are now in the catalogue and some twice. No 8, for example can be found on EMI alongside the 7th and 9th (75782 2).

I will hopefully one day ask Alexander Walker what he thinks about form in Brian symphonies. As you listen it can seem that you are moving from one incident to the next, such is the fecundity of Brian’s imagination. The militaristic opening of the 8th Symphony is immediately subsumed by an unrelated pianissimo. Elsewhere a passage for clarinet and harp is immediately followed by a great brass fanfare, etc. So I bought a Brian score and I found with close analysis, as indeed John Pickard in his superbly detailed and cogent notes says, that despite the “unpredictable progress” of the music it can almost entirely all be related back to the opening ideas.

Symphony No 8 is in a single movement, the more pastoral No 21 is, surprisingly, in four movements the first time the composer had done that since the 7th Symphony of 1948, with a slow movement second and a witty scherzo third and No 26 is in three movements but the second drifts into the third making the structure seem bi-partite. In each symphony, and remember there are thirty-two of them, Brian seems to be able to approach the form slightly differently, always experimenting. But does this lead to good symphonic music or just good symphonic moments? What Walker achieves it seems to me, and indeed Brabbins in his recordings including the non-symphonic works, is to convey the overall sense of structure even if it appears wayward and gives to the music a sense of direction. Walker also must have had more rehearsal time than earlier conductors because the New Russia State Orchestra for whom, until recently Havergal Brian must have been a total mystery, are playing their hearts out for him.

Yet, a little Brian goes a long way. I wouldn’t recommend you listen to these works in too close a succession. The grainy textures, - the eccentricities - need to be tasted carefully and if you are not careful it can appear that one symphony is much like the rest with the particular orchestral fingerprints of Brian strong in each and sometimes unrelenting especially with such a vivid recording.

If you are, as it were, a Havergal Brian virgin then this disc would not be a bad place to start as the works are dramatic and well contrasted and wonderfully played. In fact the 8th was the first which Brian himself heard and the performance of it obviously spurred him on to further extraordinary things, perhaps it might spur you on too to discover more about this giant of the British symphonic repertoire.

Gary Higginson

Previous review: Rob Barnett



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