On record – New Russian State Symphony Orchestra / Alexander Walker – Havergal Brian: Symphonies 7 & 16 (Naxos)

Havergal Brian
Symphony no.7 in C major (1948)
Symphony no.16 (1960)
The Tinker’s Wedding (1948)

New Russian State Symphony Orchestra / Alexander Walker

Naxos 8.573959 [61’58”]

Producer Pavel Lavrenenkov
Engineers Aleksander Karasev, Gennady Trabantov

Recorded 16-19 January 2018 at Russian State Television and Radio Company KULTURA, Moscow

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Naxos continues its traversal of the symphonies by Havergal Brian (1976-1972), once more with Alexander Walker and the New Russian State Symphony for two works as rank among the composer’s most impressive in this genre – plus one of his most appealing shorter pieces.

What’s the music like?

The Sixth and Seventh Symphonies saw Brian’s active return to composition after a hiatus of four years. Whereas the former is in a taut single movement, the Seventh Symphony is a four-movement work on a Brahmsian scale and its composer’s final such symphony. Inspired by the chapters of Goethe’s autobiography concerning his student years at Strasbourg, where he was never to return, the work charts a course from innocence to experience which might (as John Pickard surmises in his booklet note) extend to the degradation of Teutonic culture over the Nazi era. Walker has the measure of the out-going initial Allegro, not least its musing central episode, then points up the energy and extroversion of the scherzo. In its amalgam of intermezzo and Adagio, the third movement unfolds from fugitive restlessness to an anxious searching whose emotional depth is undercut by Walker’s relative swiftness, yet he brings due purposefulness to the Epilogue with its remorseless motion towards a coda whose bell-clad remoteness fairly encapsulates the ‘Once upon a time’ aura of intangibility at the heart of this ambivalent work.

Forward 12 years and the Sixteenth Symphony is the highlight of a group of one-movement such pieces where Brian wrestled with new possibilities of formal and expressive continuity. Here the overt rhetoric of its three predecessors is replaced with a tensile momentum which accumulates across its six sections. Walker draws due expectancy from its slow introduction, then finds brusque energy in the allegro and playful fantasy in those quixotic variations on a ceaselessly changing ‘ground bass’ that follow. The main slow episode evinces real nobility, and if the ensuing fugal galop undeniably taxes orchestral coordination, the closing section moves methodically though confidently towards a heady cadential QED as only Brian could have conceived. Absence of any concrete ‘programme’ only adds to this work’s fascination.

Opening this disc is the second of the ‘comedy overtures’ that span Brian’s creativity. Taking its cue from the play by J. M. Synge, The Tinker’s Wedding is a blueprint for its composer’s final years as it alternates hectic energy and pensive musing prior to a tersely decisive close.

Does it all work?

Yes. Brian may be an acquired taste, but his output contains numerous pieces of undoubted quality and the two symphonies featured here are, in their appreciably different ways, among his best. If the playing of his Russian players is intermittently less assured than that accorded Charles Mackerras in the Seventh (EMI/Warner) or Myer Fredman (Lyrita) in the Sixteenth, Walker is demonstrably his own man when it comes to an interpretative stance. Those who are new to Brian’s music will find this release starts them, qualitatively speaking, at the top.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Sound is a little airless, but this is not to the detriment of the intricacy or dynamism of this music – with annotations that could not be more authoritative. Hopefully Walker and his orchestra will record the nine remaining Brian symphonies yet to be covered by Naxos.

Stream

Buy

For more information on this release and to purchase in multiple file formats visit the Presto website

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.