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Havergal Brian: Symphonies N° 8 in B-Flat minor, N° 21 in E-Flat major & N° 26
New Russia State Symphony Orchestra, Alexander Walker (conductor)
Recording: Russian State TV and Radio Company, Studio 5, Moscow, Russia (September 8-11, 2016) – 70’26
Naxos 8.57352 – Booklet in English

If any composer can lay claim to being the most ostentatiously overlooked, it just might be Havergal Brian.

A few facts about his life:

He was born in Staffordshire, England, in humble circumstances, in 1876. He became an organist for a time and was inspired by new music by Strauss and Mahler; Elgar gave some encouragement. An orchestral suite was performed under Henry Wood at the Proms in 1907. He completed his first symphony, known as The Gothic, when he was 51. It is 105 minutes long and requires an orchestra of 200 and a chorus of 800. It was not performed until 1961, then professionally under Sir Adrian Boult in 1966. As of 2011 it achieved only its 6th performance (also at a Proms concert.) He composed 32 symphonies, 21 of them after he had turned 80. He also composed several operas, often on subjects already handled by others: The Cenci, Faust, Agamemnon, Turandot, plus one, The Tigers, based on his experiences in World War I. None of the operas has been staged, but some have received concert performances.

And in his spare time he married twice and had 10 children. One of the books about him is titled Ordeal by Music. He never seemed daunted by his lack of recognition.

His symphonies have been performed, but none frequently. It is nice to note that none of the subsequent symphonies is a long and freakish as his first one, which Richard Taruskin cites as a prime example of the dead end of “maximalism.” Many were never played during Brian’s lifetime (he died in 1972.) While noted conductors have performed some works (Mackerras, Groves, Downes, Handley, Stokowski), none except, perhaps, Martyn Brabbins can be said to have championed his cause. One can blame the ossification of the symphonic repertoire, but he is among a long list of neglected 20th century symphonists. Mention is made of him being an outlier of the pastoral school, but his works contain a great deal of turbulence.

He did not hear a performance of any of his symphonies until he was 78 when in 1954 Boult conducted the Symphony N° 8, composed in 1949. It is about 23 minutes long and is in a single movement. The booklet notes its “unpredictable progress”, which seems to be a salient characteristic of his style, with abrupt transitions from brassy militaristic to a becalmed state. At times he seems to be developing a musical idea, but it soon gets tossed aside. The work conjures up a solitary, inconclusive search. One might have guessed it was by Shostakovich, but without the resoluteness.

The Symphony N° 21 (composed in 1963 and first performed in 1969) is more conventional, being in four movements. The second, Adagio, displays stress and melancholy (“innocence irretrievably lost” according to the notes) while the third, Vivace, is by and large upbeat. The fourth movement, Allegro, seems to be striving toward a grand finale, but once again “events do not unfold quite as expected.”

When listening to this CD, I would advise not to take it in all at once and to start with Symphony N° 26 (composed in 1966) which leaves more of a vivid initial impression than the other two. It begins (Allegro risoluto) abruptly as if in mid-phrase, but once again, there is “a series of episodes with no particular sense of direction.” Aggressive outbursts give way to sections worthy of Malcolm Arnold or the like. One section labelled Giocoso is very much Brian’s own version of “playful.” It pulls itself together toward a recognizable finish.

Since there is as yet no performance tradition for Havergal Brian, one really can’t compare this recording with any other (as one can with, say, Mahler or Shostakovich.) It seems well-recorded by a fully professional orchestra. If some of the sounds are “odd”, that is what Brian wrote. His instrumental combinations can be unusual. Alexander Walker shows all evidence of command of the idiom.

With this recording of Symphony N° 26, the Havergal Brian Society’s project to record all the symphonies is complete. Will this project reveal an overlooked genius to a receptive (finally!) world? I am sorry to say I doubt it. To a great extent his singularity is a gift - or propensity - to constantly undercut himself. Aside from that, he is in the shadow of Mahler and other tonal composers. Still, if a nearby orchestra should ever program a Brian symphony I would happily attend.

The author of this CD’s notes, John Pickard (himself a symphonic composer), is the Havergal Brian Society’s archivist. To learn more, there is a website.

Michael Johnson




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