Havergal BRIAN (1876-1972)
Symphony No 3 in C-sharp minor (1931-1932) [53:53]
Symphony No 17 (1960-1961) [13:45]
Ronald Stevenson (piano), David Wilde (piano), New Philharmonia Orchestra (No 3), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (No 17)/Stanley Pope
rec. 12 January 1974 (No 3), 23 June 1976 (Symphony No 17), BBC Maida Vale, London, UK
HERITAGE HTGCD153 [67:29]
The label’s website says that these recordings from the mid-seventies are the first commercial release of Havergal Brian’s two symphonies. This is slightly misleading: off-air recordings were issued as bootleg albums back in the day. The Havergal Brian Society notes: “these were pirate recordings […] that would be illegal in the UK”. Symphony No 3 appeared on Aries LP 1617; the band credited was the “Lisbon Conservatory Orchestra” conducted by “Peter Michaels”. Actually, this was taken from a BBC Radio 3 concert broadcast on 18 October 1974. Symphony No 17 was credited to the fictitious but convincingly named “Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra” conducted by “Horst Werner”. It was issued in 1976 on a triple album Aries LP 3601 along with Symphonies No 13, 15, 20, 24 and 26; the other outfit on this pirated album were the equally imaginary “Edinburgh Youth Symphony” conducted by “John Freedman”. The actual first broadcast of Symphony No 17 was on BBC Radio 3 on 14 May 1978. The artists in both symphonies were as listed above.
This disc, then, contains the transfers of two BBC broadcast performances. As the liner notes say, “they lack the frisson of a public performance or the polish of a commercial studio recording (rehearsal time of these broadcasts invariably being restricted and separate takes almost non-existent”. This is a case of damning oneself with faint praise because both performances and recordings are excellent.
Havergal Brian’s symphonic achievement is amazing, whatever way you look at it. The short Symphony No 17 was written when the composer was a mere 84 years old. He had completed Symphonies Nos 14-16 in the previous year. Despite his age, there would be fifteen more before he put down his pen: Symphonies Nos 31-32 were completed as late as 1968.
Symphony No 3 is a clever balance between the composer’s ubiquitous march music and a keen sense of lyricism. A pastoral idiom is evoked here and there, and the final movement has much Elgarian nobility. Musical material seems to overflow; innovative ideas are taken up, used and then discarded. The Symphony is conceived in four standard movements: sonata form in the first, a long and involved slow movement, an eccentric (but effective) scherzo, and a finale, short but with huge effect. This long work, Brian’s only symphony shorter than the massive Gothic Symphony, requires a large orchestra. It was originally meant to be a two-piano concerto. Brian has kept these instruments in the score. It has been said that “the music seems to be struggling for unity and cohesion against counterforces trying to blow it apart”. It is up to the listener to decide if the composer has succeeded in creating accord.
Symphony No 17 is in a single movement, unsurprisingly cast in three parts. The listener will note the imbalance between the length of each section. For example, the elusive and enigmatic “finale” Allegro con brio lasts only two minutes. The opening Adagio - Allegro moderato takes about eight minutes, and the “slow movement” Lento poco lasts just over three. None of this bothers me. This is a successful symphony, full of interest and conflicting emotion, and characterised by contrast between aggression, struggle and pensive interludes. The writing for the brass section is particularly effective. Malcolm MacDonald gave an excellent précis of this work, worth quoting in full: “[This] is one of Brian’s most abstract and elliptical utterances: there are fleeting hints of Romantic imagery and mysterious hymnody, but in general it might be considered as a species of polyphonic fantasia in several clearly-defined sections, a kind of orchestral equivalent […] to the big keyboard toccatas of Bach…”
I have not had heard the unauthorised LPs, so I can only imagine what the sound quality and packaging may have been like. I do not recall hearing the original broadcasts either. The transfers have been made from the original BBC tapes. For me, they are superb, and they bring these two important recordings to life.
The booklet explains that conductor Stanley Pope (1916-1995) had a long-standing association with Havergal Brian’s music. It started in 1958, when he conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra in the world premiere of Symphony No 10 on BBC Radio 3.
John Pickard’s excellent essay, with a great deal of commentary and non-technical analysis, was specially written for this release (the sleeve notes from the Aries LPs have been wisely abandoned). There is a short biography of Stanley Pope.
Lionel Friend with the BBC Symphony Orchestra recorded No 3 for Hyperion (CDH55029). Adrian Leaper with the RTE National Symphony Orchestra recorded No 17 for Naxos (8.572020). I will not judge them against Stanley Pope’s take. They all seem to me to be valid, dramatic and satisfying performances of two essential works. Havergal Brian enthusiasts will insist on owning all these recordings.
discography on the Havergal Brian Society website lists many other unauthorised recordings, so there are plenty of Brian’s compositions to reissue in conjunction with the BBC and other media.