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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]
New Russia State Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Walker
rec. 2018, Studio 5, Russian State TV and Radio Company KULTURA, Moscow
NAXOS 8.573959 [61:58]

The recorded sound of this disc is joyously impressive: heaps of detail, atmospheric and a sense of a wide open acoustic, even if this is a broadcasting studio. This complements three Brian works of gawky progress and splendid incident here receiving second (or third) recordings. The respective works’ disc debuts date back in the case of No. 16 to the analogue era in 1973 and for the other two works five years after that to early digital technology; they were issued by EMI on LP, cassette and CD. In humdrum terms these recordings were historical. These were in the vanguard of professional Brian performances to be commercially recorded. The present Naxos disc owes its existence to financial support from the Havergal Brian Society.

Naxos open proceedings with two works from 1948. The first is an affable, bright rather than brilliant eight-minute overture just occasionally showing some kinship with Walton and Berners. It is based on J.M. Synge’s play, The Tinker’s Wedding and is a sort of obverse in mood to the fantastical melodious Sixth Symphony Sinfonia Tragica, It was also written in 1948 which may well have been a great year for Brian. The Sixth found its genesis in another Synge play, Deirdre of the Sorrows. The latter was also set by Healey Willan, Karl Rankl and Cecil Gray. Synge had impressed Brian as early as 1918. Clearly, his writings held long-term musical fascination because other Synge works have been written from the 1930s to 1990s by Vaughan Williams, Bernard Stevens and Marga Richter. The overture is in step with Brian’s much earlier overture, Dr Merryheart (review review).

The two symphonies show contrasting aspects of Brian. The Seventh, seemingly inspired by Goethe, Strasbourg and its cathedral adopts an epic stance across four distinct movements, ending with a completely non-Baxian Epilogue. The Sixteenth, from twelve years later, is characteristic of the later works. It is in a single movement and is only fifteen minutes long.

The Seventh launches out with a jerkily pecked-out fanfare-march of an idea. Brian had a gift for intensely memorable openings: witness the first three symphonies. This purposeful aspect, which is also felt at the start of then second movement, is undermined by many more reflective and disillusioned pages. It’s interesting that the term “Allegro” appears in the mood indications for three of the four movements and “Adagio” twice in the third. The third movement - almost as long as the Sixteenth Symphony by itself - can serve as a demonstration piece (as can the overture) for it is accomplished with a flighty and spectral hand. The finale caries the shadow of the opening’s fanfare. It includes a part for Nikolai Savchenko’s violin but this capricious moment is quite different in stance from the pastoral ecstasy violin solos in The Gothic and the Third.

The music of the Sixteenth is sometimes bleak but it is packed with kaleidoscopic incident, mostly serious but with wind parts injecting humour and grotesquerie. It starts in totally engaging fashion with an oboe/flute/clarinet idea that suggests Narcissus and the pool under leaden grey rain heavy clouds; it returns momentarily at 10:47. Only five years later he was to write what is for me the finest of the late symphonies, Symphony No. 22 Symphonia Brevis.

The Sixteenth Symphony came out on a Lyrita LP in the mid 1970s and was reissued with its then disc-mate No. 6 on a still astonishingly good Lyrita LP reissued in 2008 on CD; the latter with Arnold Cooke’s Third Symphony.

The excellent liner-sheet notes are by composer and Brian adherent John Pickard. They are in English and run to four sides. Although these offer some musical analysis it is counterbalanced with biographical flesh and reflection. The musicology is, for the most part, done with an accessible rather than overly technical hand.

Rob Barnett

The Brian Symphonies on Naxos



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