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Havergal BRIAN (1876-1972)
Symphony No. 8 in B flat Minor (1949) [23:20]
Symphony No. 21 in E flat Major (1963) [29:19]
Symphony No. 26 (1966) [17:48]
New Russia State Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Walker
rec. 2016, Studio 5 Russian State TV and Radio Company Kultura, Moscow
NAXOS 8.573752 [70:27]

This CD may well come to occupy a small niche in recording history. The inclusion on the programme of the Symphony No 26 means that at last all 32 of Havergal Brian’s symphonies have now achieved a commercial recording. That’s a state of affairs that might well have seemed an impossible prospect to even the most diehard Brian enthusiast around thirty years ago. Several labels have played their part but Naxos/Marco Polo have led the way, presenting no fewer than 21 of the symphonies on disc – and, as I write this, a new disc containing symphonies 7 and 16 has just been released: do Naxos intend to issue a complete Brian cycle, I wonder? The performers on that disc are the New Russia State Symphony Orchestra and Alexander Walker who also do the honours here.

Composer and Brian expert, John Pickard tells us in his valuable notes that the 26th Symphony was not performed during Brian’s lifetime; it was first heard in 1976. Pickard describes this three-movement work as having “something of the character of a divertimento”. We are plunged into the Allegro risoluto first movement without any preliminaries – in medias res, almost. At once, there’s great energy in the music, energy that’s underlined by thundering percussion. Within a minute or so, however, a rather calmer second subject is heard; this is much more expansive than the preceding music. Thereafter, as the movement pursues its course, there are a few relaxed passages – for example, just after 4:00 – but a good deal of what we hear justifies the “risoluto” tempo marking. Pickard describes the second movement as “playful and inconsequential” and it’s true that the music is somewhat lighter in tone than what one might expect in late Brian, though the composer’s trademark martial side drums aren’t entirely banished. The music has a bluff charm to it. At 4:05 the pace abruptly slows and a short coda, in which a solo flute is prominent, leads without a break into the finale. This is a dynamic rondo in which much of the music has a positive, outgoing nature. There are some contrasting quieter episodes, one of which (3:31) features a short but dazzling violin solo. The symphony ends very loudly and abruptly.

Symphony No 21 was one of the first Brian symphonies to achieve a commercial recording. In July 1972 the wonderfully enterprising Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra and Eric Pinkett made a most accomplished recording of it, which Unicorn issued on LP. The recording was reissued on CD just a few years ago and deserves an honoured place in the Brian discography (review). However, it’s good that the symphony now also has a modern digital recording by a professional orchestra.

This work is cast in four movements. The first movement has a very short slow introduction, but the Allegro e con anima that follows is packed with drive and purpose. John Pickard references suggestions that Brian was “nostalgically engaging with the ‘English pastoral; tradition.” I fancy, though, that many listeners will principally register, as I did, the energy in the music. Brian gives himself plenty of scope to indulge his predilection for forceful side drum interjections. The slow movement – Adagio cantabile e sostenuto - opens with lovely, benign string writing and at 2:10 we hear a delectable violin solo. Gradually, the writing becomes more intense and fully scored. Even though the pace is slow there’s a lot of urgency in the music and there are some very strong climaxes. Pickard describes the third movement, marked Vivace, as “more intermezzo than scherzo”. The music is pretty taut and it seems to me that the rhythms are often complex and ingenious. The Allegro con fuoco finale is initially characterised by bluff good humour. It opens with a distant horn call which, later in the movement, is revisited by horn and then trumpet. Much of the movement is in the lively vein with which it set off. However, just after 9:00 a solo oboe ushers in music that is more solemn and expansive. This episode builds in power until the symphony achieves a very strong conclusion in which pounding timpani are prominent.

The Eighth Symphony was one of the first Brian recordings that I bought, in the shape of the LP of the very good 1977 recording by Sir Charles Groves. I have to say that I think Naxos has missed a trick in the presentation of the work. It’s cast in a long single movement. John Pickard says it’s one of Brian’s most difficult works to describe – and then has a jolly good shot at doing so! When EMI reissued the Groves recording on CD (review), they very helpfully divided the symphony into six tracks. I do wish that Naxos had provided a similar service, linking the tracking points to John Pickard’s description of the unfolding music.

The Eighth was the first of Brian’s symphonies to be performed – in 1954 by Sir Adrian Boult when the composer was 78 years old! A good deal of the music is underpinned by march rhythms and the scoring is consistently ear-catching and novel, not least in terms of the unusual combinations of instruments that Brian often employs. Though the frequent loud passages are impressive, what particularly captures my attention is the inventive and imaginative way Brian scores the quieter episodes. I find that often you don’t really know where the music is heading next, but the sense of curiosity to follow Brian on his journey ensures that the attention of the listener is held. For all the gruff, loud passages and mighty climaxes there are also moments of no little beauty. I think, for instance, of the passage between 14:00 and 15:20 in which the lower strings start off the melodic line which eventually passes to the violins who take it much higher. Brian achieves a magical ending with soft string chords against which the harp gradually descends. Then there’s a two-note call by the cor anglais and the very end is given to almost inaudible horns and an ultra-soft gong stroke. It’s a highly original score which Alexander Walker and his Russian orchestra project strongly.

This is a significant disc – and not just because it completes the Brian symphony discography. The music is convincingly played by the New Russia State Symphony Orchestra and Alexander Walker and they’ve been well recorded too. John Pickard’s booklet essay is excellent. I think it’s fitting that Naxos have completed the commercial recordings of Havergal Bran’s symphonies, given that over the years they’ve done so much to promote his cause.

John Quinn

Previous review: Rob Barnett

Reviews of the Brian Symphonies on Naxos


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