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Havergal BRIAN (1876-1972)
The Tinker’s Wedding - Overture (1948) [8:08]
Symphony No. 7 in C major (1948) [38:22]
Symphony No. 16 (1960) [15:19]
New Russia State Symphony Orchestra / Alexander Walker
Nikolai Savchenko (violin)
rec. 2018, Studio 5, Russian State TV & Radio Company KULTURA, Moscow
NAXOS 8.573959 [61:58]

As part of its series of Havergal Brian orchestral works, Naxos has released a new album containing the Seventh and Sixteenth Symphonies plus ‘The Tinker’s Wedding’ overture. Now that all of Brian’s symphonies have made it to CD, I find it fitting to reflect back on the many disappointments he experienced throughout his long career, both in getting his works performed and even being taken seriously. Kenneth Eastaugh’s book, ‘Havergal Brian: The Making of a Composer’, fired my interest in Brian and I recall being in awe that a twentieth-century English composer had written thirty-two symphonies, with a late burst of productivity that resulted in him writing two-thirds of them in his last twenty years.

After writing Prometheus Unbound (now lost) in 1944, Brian was in the compositional doldrums for around three years, producing nothing until he completed the Seventh Symphony in 1948, so perhaps the terrible events of World War Two had taken their toll. The work seems to have been inspired by Brian’s reading of Goethe’s autobiography, specifically the German writer’s period in Strasbourg to study law until leaving for Weimar. Cast in four movements, the Seventh was recorded by the BBC in 1966 and broadcast in 1968 but had to wait almost twenty years until it was publicly performed in concert in 1987 at Liverpool. The opening movement of the Seventh feels weighty and celebratory in tone, featuring brass and percussion that frame a more reflective central section. A mood of intense agitation predominates in the second movement as if constantly in motion, unable to settle. The lengthier - almost fourteen minutes – third movement expresses a strong sense of searching, with shafts of light shining through the relative gloom. The Finale is subtitled ‘Once upon a time’, a reference to the fact that Goethe never returned to Strasbourg. I find this a movement of inscrutable emotional content, containing a pair of great angry climaxes. There is a lovely tender violin solo, played by Nikolai Savchenko, which adds to the overall mystery of the work, followed by the second final aggressive climax that comes just before the end of the score.

Brian based his glowing overture ‘The Tinker’s Wedding’ on J.M. Synge’s two act play of the same name. Written quickly in 1948, the score, sometimes subtitled the Comedy Overture No. 2, was given as a BBC New Music Rehearsal in 1949, followed by live broadcasts in 1950 (Scotland only) and 1951. It had to wait until 1972 for its first performance in public which was given at Hammersmith Town Hall. Lasting here just over eight minutes, this is an upbeat, lighthearted work with a relatively serious central section.

In the summer of 1960 Brian composed his Sixteenth Symphony an uncompromising single movement score for large orchestra. According to Robert Simpson, Brian wrote in letter that when composing the Sixteenth he had been reading Herodotus’ account of the Persians defeating the Greeks at the Battle of Thermopylae. Brian died in 1972 and never heard the Sixteenth which was recorded in 1973 by the BBC and – nine days later – by Lyrita. The BBC broadcast their recording on Radio 3 in 1975. However, it was nineteen years later before it received its first public performance given at Royal Academy of Music, London in 1994. This is one of Brian’s most harmonically complicated scores with writing that conveys considerable anxious anticipation. Brian regularly tightens and lessens the tension, revealing stark contrasts from passages of a light, carefree character through to seriousness and downright hostility. Not untypical of Brian’s writing, here the brass and percussion sections tend to dominate the strings and the conclusion comes rather suddenly, which can take the first-time listener by surprise.

Under Andrew Walker the New Russia State Symphony Orchestra perform generally effectively with satisfactory levels of commitment although there are some moments when the pulse seems to sag and maybe the playing loses some focus. I have no problems whatsoever with the sonics of this studio recording from the Russian State TV & Radio Company KULTURA, Moscow. These Naxos recordings aren’t my first-choice in these works. For overall improved playing which is tighter, with increased focus in the Seventh and ‘The Tinker’s Wedding’, I prefer the 1987 accounts from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Charles Mackerras on EMI and in the Sixteenth I greatly admire the 1973 account from the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Myer Fredman on Lyrita.

Michael Cookson

Previous reviews: Rob Barnett ~ Jim Westhead

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