Under The Surface – Havergal Brian: Symphonies 8, 21 & 26 (Naxos)

Havergal Brian: Symphonies Nos. 8, 21 & 26 – New Russia State Symphony Orchestra / Alexander Walker

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Naxos’s Havergal Brian cycle, begun a quarter-century ago on the Marco Polo label, reaches an important milestone with a disc that features the composer’s only previously unrecorded symphony, alongside notable such works from his middle- and late- periods.

What’s the music like?

The premiere recording is that of the Twenty-Sixth Symphony, written as Brian approached his 90th birthday and among his most concentrated – for all that the overall mood is one of relative good humour. Of its three allegros, the first is a boisterous sonata design that cannily elides development and reprise, while its successor is a lively intermezzo with unexpectedly aggressive trios then a pointedly understated ending which leads directly into the finale – an off-kilter rondo whose more ambivalent episodes make possible a coda whose decisiveness is more than a little fractious. Unheard since two performances in its composer’s centenary year, the piece yields unexpected subtleties – Alexander Walker drawing a tensile response from his New Russia State Orchestra forces in this lesser while not unappealing addition to the Brian canon.

The significance of the Eighth Symphony has never been in doubt. If not the first of Brian’s one-movement such works, it is the first in which this composer grappled with the potential of symphonic continuity in earnest. Compared to Sir Charles Groves’s 1977 recording (EMI/ Warner), Walker opts for less strongly characterized individual sections in favour of greater underlying cohesion – the piece thus emerging as more than the sum of its already fascinating parts. A further plus is the definition accorded harp and piano, their contribution being crucial to the motivic evolution of music whose mystical qualities are offset by elements of sardonic humour and fraught eloquence. Nor are the enigmatic final bars undersold, though the quiet concluding dissonance as horn and trombones collide might have evinced greater presence.

By comparison, the Twenty-First Symphony tended to be heard as Brian’s marking time prior to embarking on a new and more challenging phase. This, at least, was always the feeling of Eric Pinkett’s pioneering 1972 account with the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra (Unicorn/Heritage), though such equable classicism has little place in Walker’s conception – the charged opening Allegro, its gawky introduction transformed into a surging coda, being a case in point. The Adagio emerges as one of its composer’s most searching, its increasingly wracked expression barely held in check, then the Vivace’s nimble scherzo with two livelier trios makes way for a finale whose muscular variations build inexorably toward an apotheosis the more powerful for its relative succinctness in what is an unequivocal statement of intent.

Does it all work?

Indeed. This is a major appraisal of three contrasting Brian symphonies, grippingly conveyed by an orchestra which now sounds audibly at ease with this composer’s recalcitrant idiom.

Is it recommended?

Yes, not least when the recorded sound is arguably the best yet secured from this source, and John Pickard’s booklet notes offer a wealth of informed observation. Incidentally, the Eighth Symphony has not been performed since a 1971 broadcast and never given in concert. Maybe Alexander Walker would like to take the plunge as this piece approaches its 70th anniversary?

For more information on this release, you can visit the Naxos website. For more information on the New Russia State Symphony Orchestra click here, and for the conductor Alexander Walker’s website click here

On Record: Håkan Hardenberger – Dean: Dramatis Personae; Francesconi: Hard Pace (BIS)

Dean Dramatis Personae (2013), Francesconi Hard Pace (2007)

Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet), Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra / John Storgårds


What’s it all about?

Håkan Hardenberger returns with a further two concertos to add to the sizable number he has commissioned over these past three decades, as written by two leading composers from the middle generation whose musical aesthetics complement each other in almost every respect.

What’s the music like?

Well established as a violist before turning successfully to composition, Brett Dean (b1961) has several concertos among his output. As its title attests, Dramatis Personae evinces overtly dramatic connotations – not least those of Hamlet, an opera on which Shakespeare play Dean began writing immediately after the present work. Not that this concerto is about existential angst; rather it favours a distinctly sardonic take on the heroic concept – its initial movement, Fall of a Superhero, building from an anticipatory crescendo to an animated if increasingly fatigued interplay as subsides into enervated calm. Soliloquy proceeds as reflective dialogue whose elegiac quality takes on a renewed impetus in The Accidental Revolutionary, whose Chaplinesque humour reaches its apogee in the knockabout recessional which acts as coda.

A composer whose formative years were focussed on electronics, jazz and production, Luca Francesconi (b1956) has amassed a comparably diverse output where instrumental virtuosity is everywhere apparent. Not least in Hard Pace, a trumpet concerto that takes its cue from one of the instrument’s great practitioners. Although he never wrote or commissioned a concerto, Miles Davis delved extensively into those possibilities of varied accompaniment and sound diffusion everywhere audible in the Francesconi. This falls into two parts, the first building from eventful stasis to hectic activity before it suddenly ceases. The second part consists of three increasingly shorter sections – a taciturn Adagio whose emotional intensity spills over into the semi-cadenza of Miles, before the brief Finale brings matters to a decisive close.

Does it all work?

Yes. Neither of these concertos takes the all-round possibilities of the trumpet forward to the same degree as Peter Eötvös’s Jet Stream or Olga Neuwirth’s …miramondo multiplo… (both of which have been recorded by Hardenberger), but there can be no doubt as to their success in terms of demonstrating the instrument’s essential demeanour. That this is Hardenberger’s fourth disc of works for trumpet and orchestra on this label, moreover, wholly confirms his dedication to expanding what was once a genre proscribed both temporally and expressively.

The time has long gone when trumpeters searching for concertos outside of the Baroque or Classical eras had little more than that by Alexander Arutunian to draw on, for which sea-change Hardenberger can take no mean credit. His stentorian playing in both these pieces is further enhanced by an excellent contribution from the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John Storgårds with sure understanding of that expressive ebb-and-flow between soloist and orchestra. Both the SACD sound and booklet notes are well up to BIS’s customary standards.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. A welcome and impressive addition to a discography which, formerly on Philips and latterly on BIS, has no equals when it comes to defining a repertoire for the trumpet such as younger practitioners can take forward in the knowledge its potential is far from exhausted.

Richard Whitehouse

Listen here on Spotify:

Under the Surface: Antonina Styczeń – Weinberg: Works for flute (Tacet)

Weinberg Flute Concertos: No.1 Op.75 (1961); No.2 Op.148 (1987); 12 Miniatures Op.29bis (1945/83); Trio for Flute, Viola and Harp Op.127 (1979)

Antonina Styczeń (flute), Paweł Czarny (viola), Zuzanna Fedorowicz, Polish Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra / Wojciech Rajski

What’s it all about?

The complete output for flute and orchestra of Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-96), played by an artist of high calibre (and not merely as a flautist!), with the first recording of an arrangement by a composer whose stranding has risen immeasurably over the two decades since his death.

What’s the music like?

Weinberg’s flute concertos provide a revealing insight into his music at key junctures of his career. The First Concerto is one of a group of pieces, including the Fourth Symphony and Violin Concerto, that finds Weinberg refocussing his approach to abstract composition in the wake of Stalin’s death; culminating in the formidable cohesion of the Fifth Symphony a year later. Modest in scope, it unfolds from a lively initial Allegro, via a Largo of exquisite poise to a final Allegro whose teasing understatement is brusquely curtailed only at the very last.

By the time of his Second Flute Concerto, Weinberg was struggling with failing health and his eclipse by a younger and ostensibly more provocative generation of composers. Not that this piece evinces defeatism or self-pity; instead refining the conception of its predecessor so that the angular opening Allegro affords potent contrast with a Largo of affecting poignancy, then with a fugitive Allegretto. Allusions to Bach, Gluck et al flit by in the latter as Weinberg reflects on this instrument as also his evolution as a composer across more than five decades.

What makes this disc mandatory for all admirers of Weinberg is its first recording of the 12 Miniatures, initially conceived with piano accompaniment then arranged for string orchestra some 38 years later. On one level a sequence of improvisatory gestures, discreetly contrasted as to texture and expression, they yet emerge as an engaging unity almost despite themselves. Nor is it surprising that, heard in this way, these pieces seem more a product of Weinberg’s last years – during which time his musical idiom became ever more distilled and refractory.

Although never envisaged as other than a chamber work, the Trio for Flute, Viola and Harp might itself be thought a concerto manqué; sharing as it does the concertos’ three-movement form, alongside their undemonstrative juxtaposing of animated and introspective. Debussy’s totemic sonata for these instruments could hardly not be referred to during its course, yet the means-by which they combine, thereby resulting in music of far from untroubled serenity, is Weinberg’s alone. A ‘one-off’ in his output, it could not be mistaken for any other composer.

Do the performances do it justice?

Yes. Antonina Styczeń is a flautist as adept technically as she is insightful interpretively. She enjoys evident rapport with the Polish Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra of Sopot, as also her fellow players in the trio. Accounts of the concertos from Anders Jonhäll (Chandos, coupled with the Cello Fantasia and Clarinet Concerto), are more atmospheric while less characterful; among three other recordings of the trio, avoid that on BIS as this substitutes piano for harp – with unfortunate results. The present disc is admirably recorded and informatively annotated.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Styczeń is clearly a musician to watch. In addition to her flute playing, she is also a skilled horse-rider (as is made plain by the booklet photos) and intends to combine these two media in future. Happily, she falls at none of the fences encountered in Weinberg’s music!

Richard Whitehouse

Listen here on Spotify:

Under the surface – Introit: The Music of Gerald Finzi (Decca)


Composer: Gerald Finzi (1901-1956)

Nationality: English

What did he write? Finzi’s output is slender but there are reasons behind that – not least the fact he lost his father, teacher and three brothers all at the age of eighteen. This compilation reinforces his reputation as a miniaturist, capable of producing some exquisite pieces of around five or ten minutes in length. This is rather unfair, as his vocal writing and works for soloist and orchestra reveal a composer of much greater substance.

Dies natalis and Intimations of Immortality are the vocal works of choice, while there are concertos for cello and clarinet that are worth exploring. On a smaller scale Finzi loved setting the words of Thomas Hardy, with A Young Man’s Exhortation and Earth and Air and Rain two fine song cycles for voice and piano.

What are the works on this new recording? This is an anthology of Finzi’s shorter works from the Aurora Orchestra and Nicholas Collon. It concentrates on the string orchestra, his principal means of expression. A Severn Rhapsody, Prelude and Romance are all originals, as is the Eclogue for piano and orchestra, while Mike Sheppard, Paul Mealor and Patrick Hawes contribute specially commissioned arrangements that give extra prominence to saxophone (Amy Dickson) and horn (Nicolas Fleury).

The disc, headed by the beautiful artwork How bravely autumn paints upon the sky by Edward McKnight, celebrates the composer’s 60th anniversary in collaboration with The Finzi Trust.

What is the music like? Finzi’s music is like a late summer evening – often beautiful to the ear, but with creeping shadows in the background that make their presence felt in a subtle but meaningful way. These shadows are found especially in the yearning Romance and Prelude, and the consoling but darkly shaded Eclogue.

There is a lot of slow music here, perhaps reflecting the fact that Finzi’s shorter works are often at a slower tempo. As a result they do not give us every aspect of the composer’s output. It does however show how his writing for string orchestra is almost without equal in 20th century English music – fans include Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy – and it also shows how, in works like the Romance and the livelier Rollicum-Rorum especially, he could pen a memorable tune.

The Introit for violin and orchestra also has a good tune, and is sweetly performed by soloist Thomas Gould, while Rollicum-Rorum is sensitively played by Dickson, who shows impressive agility too.

What’s the verdict? This is a compilation that has clearly been put together with love, care and attention, but there is not as much variety as there could be. Finzi comes across here as relatively one-dimensional, and well-played though the performances are, it feels like an opportunity only partially taken.

Give this a try if you like… the lighter side of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius


Watch the album trailer below:

You can also listen to an excerpt from the disc on Spotify:

Under the surface – Lalo Piano Trios played by the Leonore Piano Trio (Hyperion)


Composer: Édouard Lalo (1823-1892)

Nationality: French

What did he write? Lalo’s best-loved work is the Symphonie espagnole for violin and orchestra, but he actually wrote a fair amount of attractive orchestral music, such as a Symphony in G minor, a Cello Concerto and several other works for violin and orchestra that include a Violin Concerto and the Rapsodie norvegienne.

What are the works on this new recording? Lalo’s music is not too common these days, still less the chamber music. However there are three works for piano trio (the combination of violin, cello and piano) that have all been recorded for Hyperion by the Leonore Piano Trio. Nos.1 & 2 were written when the composer was in his mid to late twenties, while no.3 is a much later work, completed in 1880.

What is the music like? In a word, passionate. French music expert Roger Nichols draws attention to the influence of Schumann and Mendelssohn in the excellent booklet note, but Lalo really does feel like he wears his heart on his sleeve more than those composers do. Big, bold statements such as that from the cello in the fourth movement of the Piano Trio no.1 are straight from the heart, and the Leonore Trio convey the composer’s strong feelings throughout these excellent performances.

The first trio has a heroic feel, the music unashamedly romantic but often making its mark through memorable tunes. Lalo can on occasion be cheeky, and he does this especially in the Scherzo movements of each trio. The one in the last trio is a stormy affair, so powerful in fact that the composer orchestrated it four years later. The Leonore players do not hold back, powering forward in this turbulent but thrilling music, by far the loudest on the disc.

What’s the verdict? Brilliantly played, this disc makes an excellent case for a neglected part of Lalo’s output that finds the composer on very passionate form. With memorable melodies and rich, occasionally indulgent slow movements, this is invigorating music with a soft heart.

Give this a try if you like… Schumann, Mendelssohn, Franck


You can listen to excerpts from the disc at the Hyperion website

Meanwhile you can hear the Scherzo, the orchestrated movement from the Piano Trio no.3, as part of this excellent disc by Yan Pascal Tortelier and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, which contains some of Lalo’s most attractive works for violin and orchestra: