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Havergal BRIAN (1876-1972)
The Tinker’s Wedding: Overture (1948) [8:02]
Symphony No.7 in C Major (1948) [38:22]
Symphony No.16 (1960) [15:19]
Nikolai Savchenko (violin)
New Russia State Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Walker
rec. 2018, Studio 5, Russian State TV & Radio Co, Moscow
NAXOS 8.573959 [61:58]

The Havergal Brian Society deserves the highest praise for providing support to Naxos for this recording, as indeed they and the Rex Foundation of America have to other Naxos recordings of his music, and to EMI, Hyperion, Testament and Toccata Classics as well.

Brian’s Seventh Symphony has come to be associated with Strasbourg Cathedral, largely on account of a letter he wrote to Malcolm MacDonald in which he discusses the symphony and the impact the Cathedral had on Goethe, whose biography he had read. Brian himself never visited either France or Germany.

The first thing to be said about this recording is that it is closely, vividly recorded and Brian’s scoring for the brass, so evident (one might say, dominant) in this work, positively leaps from the speakers, but not as far as I can tell, to the detriment of other instruments.

It has been professionally recorded before, by the RLPO under Charles Mackerras in 1987, and the website of The Havergal Brian Society states that they sponsored a performance at the Philharmonic Hall, after which the EMI recording was made, so the orchestra had had a significant amount of rehearsal and performance time. I don’t possess that recording, but it is possible to hear extracts from it on YouTube, and the first thing that one notices is that in comparison with the forwardly balanced Naxos, the recording is recessed, so the dramatic brass and percussion outbursts are less impactful. Some research has also revealed that Mackerras directs a rather slower performance in each movement, amounting to about four minutes overall. I mention this because while the EMI CD is deleted, used copies of it in at least two guises and couplings can be purchased via Amazon.

The Seventh is the last of Brian’s ‘long’ symphonies, though its forty-or-so minutes pales into insignificance alongside some of his earlier symphonies – particularly No.1. His craggy writing is much in evidence though, as is his tendency to create abrupt transitions of music (seemingly) unrelated to what has gone immediately before – not for him, long, flowing arcs of string-dominated Romantic homogeneity. In fact, I should like to quote from a review of the EMI CD by David Jenkins in which he states, with unerring accuracy, “These extreme contrasts in Brian’s music should be played for all their worth. The ability of a conductor to realise that there is no absolute vantage point in Brian’s symphonic movements, and that what is valid at one stage in the structure may well be negated in the next, is crucial.”

The symphony opens with an impressive fanfare for trumpets and percussion, and the music continues in Brian’s unique sound world, to be festive and optimistic, later becoming hushed for the central section before resuming its bustle. The second movement very briefly continues the bustle, but the music rapidly breaks up into shreds followed by rushing woodwind solos. The music eventually ends up as a succession of clangourous sections interspersed with dance-like, raucous sounds, suddenly ending with the tolling of bells.

The third movement at nearly fourteen minutes, is the longest. It is a complex structure consisting of a mysterious, rustling Scherzo with a trio for woodwind, the Scherzo part returning to an abrupt climax. The whole thing then changes, with the Trio section being expanded upon, bringing the first extended lyrical section of the symphony. This mood winds down and a sudden, violent storm erupts, tearing the main theme to fluttering shreds. Typically, this disruption ends as quickly as it appeared and a solo violin ends the movement in a surprisingly lofty manner. I must say that, at times, I find it bewildering, but that is a sensation that often assails me when I listen to Brian’s writing.

The final movement is marked Epilogue: ‘Once Upon a Time’. It consists of a persistent march rhythm, initially announced by horns. It sounds very determined in character, but not funereal – rather it sounds tense with a significant momentum, allowing varied orchestration. There are two violent climaxes, and the one near the end sounds incredibly savage, but suddenly and entirely unanticipatedly, the bell sounds from the end of the second movement reappear, giving an amazingly serene (almost) ending.

Believe me, the whole work is a wild ride, yet paradoxically, it might well be regarded as a good place to start listening to Brian’s music, encompassing as it does elements of his earlier, broader style coupled with many indications of his unique orchestral style. The orchestra and conductor deserve much credit for the enthusiastic and accurate way they present it to us.

The Sixteenth Symphony is a different kettle of fish, lasting just fifteen minutes. Incredibly, Brian composed nos. 13 to 17 in just fifteen months when he was well into his eighties. This particular work took him just over a month to compose; he referred to it as being an ‘obsession’ for him. It is notable for its martial character, and it is known that at the time he was reading Herodotus’ account of the battle of Thermopylae in 480BC.

The informative booklet notes by John Pickard say of the symphony, “ is one of his most thoroughly radical works…bearing no relationship to any previous symphonic model, harmonically, it contains some of his most complex and dissonant constructions….any attempt to construe this music in terms of conventional symphonic design is as impossible as it is pointless”

I can only say that the music never seems to settle, flickering and morphing from one section to another, sometimes softly, sometimes in complete uproar. The orchestration is wonderful, including a fugue starting with four bassoons, a short eerie section for celesta and harp, with cor anglais and oboes in attendance. The work culminates in a wildly dissonant outburst from full orchestra, with four grinding discords, a slowly rising scale and a starling sidestep.

Brian didn’t live to hear it. It received its first performance by the LPO under Myer Fredman in the year following his death.

The CD opens with the shortest and most accessible work, The Tinker’s Wedding Overture. It is relatively uncomplicated in style, but reveals the composer’s tendency to create wilful disruptions to the musical flow. Here, they provide moments of comic contrast, the composer using the orchestra with the same virtuosity he demonstrated in his symphonies.

Havergal Brian certainly was an “original” and it’s a scandal that his music has been so neglected.

Jim Westhead

Previous review: Rob Barnett

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