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.

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

On record: ENO Chorus & Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins – Havergal Brian: The Vision of Cleopatra (Epoch)

Claudia Boyle (soprano); Angharad Lyddon (mezzo); Claudia Huckle (contralto); Peter Auty (tenor) (all soloists in The Vision of Cleopatra), Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera / Martyn Brabbins

Havergal Brian
The Vision of Cleopatra (1907)
For Valour (1904, rev 1906)
Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme (1907)
Two Poems (1912)

Dutton Epoch CDLX 7348 [73’37”]

Producer Alexander Van Ingen
Engineers Dexter Newman, Dillon Gallagher

Recorded July 5-6 2017 at St Jude-on-the-Hill, London
Recorded in association with the Havergal Brian Society

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Martyn Brabbins continues his series of Havergal Brian recordings for Dutton with a notable first – the ‘tragic poem’ The Vision of Cleopatra that is its composer’s largest surviving work from his earlier years, but which went unperformed for 105 years until its revival in Bristol.

What’s the music like?

Premiered at the 1909 Southport Festival, The Vision of Cleopatra enjoyed a passing success but received no further performances. Loss of the orchestral score and parts in the Blitz made revival impossible until 2014, when John Pickard (who writes the informative booklet note) made a new orchestration. The outcome is audacious in the context of British music from this period, taking on board possibilities opened-up by Richard Strauss in his controversial opera Salomé – unheard in the UK until 1910, but whose innovations Brian likely absorbed from the score.

Whatever else (and for all that Gerald Cumberland’s tepid libretto might suggest otherwise), Cleopatra is no anodyne Edwardian morality. After the Slave Dance which functions as a lively overture, the cantata proceeds as a sequence of nominally symphonic movements – a speculative dialogue between two of the queen’s retainers, then an increasingly fervent duet between Cleopatra and Antony followed by an expansive aria for the former; separated by a speculative choral interlude and concluded with a Funeral March of plangent immediacy.

Cleopatra may have fazed its first-night performers, but there is nothing at all tentative about this first recording. Claudia Boyle is sympathetic as Iris and Angharad Lyddon even more so as Charmion, while Peter Auty provides a not unduly histrionic showing as Antony. Although not ideally alluring in the title-role, Claudia Huckle brings eloquence to her climactic aria and throughout fulfils Brian’s exacting requirements. The Chorus of English National Opera sings with real lustre, and Brabbins secures a committed response from the ENO Orchestra.

The concert overture For Valour and Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme had already been recorded (on Naxos), but Brabbins’ teasing out of formal subtlety from expressive panache in the former and binding the latter’s (purposely) unbalanced variations into a cohesive if unwieldy whole ensures a decisive advantage. Setting contrasted poems by Robert Herrick, Two Poems receives its first professional recording: the wan plaintiveness of Requiem for the Rose then sardonic humour of The Hag make for a jarring duality redolent of Bartók’s Two Portraits Op.5.

Does it all work?

For the most part, yes. Uneven in continuity and inspiration, The Vision of Cleopatra contains the most audacious and prophetic music Brian wrote before his opera The Tigers; this account does it justice, even if the highly reverberant ambience entails a marginal lack of immediacy – notably a rather backwardly balanced chorus in its decisive contribution during Cleopatra’s aria. The orchestral playing leaves little to be desired – reinforcing gains in consistency instilled by Brabbins since he became the Music Director of English National Opera two seasons ago.

Is it recommended?

Yes. The Vision of Cleopatra is unlikely to receive regular performance (its demands putting it beyond reach of most choral societies), making this account more valuable for conveying its measure. Perhaps Pickard might follow it up with an orchestration of Brian’s Psalm 137?

You can read more about this release on the Epoch website, or read about The Vision of Cleopatra itself on the Havergal Brian Society website.

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: Havergal Brian – Symphonies 2 & 14 (Dutton Epoch)

havergal-brian

 

Havergal Brian Symphonies – No. 2 in E minor (1931); No. 14 in F minor (1960)

Royal Scottish National Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

Summary

Dutton continues its traversal of Havergal Brian’s symphonies in the company of the Royal Scottish National and Martyn Brabbins, whose live recording of the Gothic symphony from the 2011 Proms (Hyperion CDA67971/2) confirmed a Brian interpreter of real perception.

What’s the music like?

Brabbins and the RSNO make a persuasive case for the Fourteenth Symphony, unheard since its premiere by Edward Downes in 1969 and here receiving its first recording. In his seminal study of Brian’s symphonies (Kahn & Averill), the late Malcolm MacDonald considered this to be the worst of the whole cycle – but it has arguably greater cohesion than the comparable one-movement works on either side; notably with the brooding introduction that segues into a resolute Allegro then a ‘slow movement’ whose restiveness is typically Brian. The return of the Adagio as a formal pivot brings the most dramatic music, but neither the intermezzo nor Allegro sections that follows sustains momentum on the way to a brutally decisive coda. Less than the sum of its best parts, No. 14 is by no means the low-point as has often been credited.

Brian was never to hear his Second Symphony, its first performance by Leslie Head in 1973 followed in 1979 by a broadcast with Charles Mackerras. An earlier studio recording by Tony Rowe and the Moscow Symphony (Naxos 8.570506) did it scant justice, but Brabbins gets far closer to the heart of a work inspired by Goethe’s play Götz von Berlichingen, and described by Brian as representative of ‘‘MAN in his cosmic loneliness: ambition, loves, battles, death’’.

With its glowering woodwind and stark pizzicato strings over three sets of timpani, the first movement’s Adagio introduction is a striking invention and if the main themes of its Allegro are a little inflexibly drawn, Brabbins ensures their purposeful correlation through an eventful development and on to a coda that collapses into darkness. Even finer is the slow movement whose sequence of developing variations on a plangent cor anglais melody which finds Brian at his most questing harmonically; its dense textures scrupulously rendered here. The scherzo adds eight horns – making a total of 16 – organ and two pianos to a large orchestra, though its surging climactic pages are less memorable than the expectant and resigned music either side. A funereal procession, the finale’s Wagnerian gestures do not impede its powerful unfolding to an eloquent episode for divided cellos, before it builds to a baleful climax and fateful close.

Does it all work?

For the most part, yes. Undeniably among Brian’s lesser symphonies, the Fourteenth can at last be judged on its own terms (the central climax arresting in context), while the Second’s head-on confronting of late-Romantic symphonism at the height of European neo-classicism yields often impressive results; not least in the oblique rhetoric of its Andante (might Brian have heard Henry Wood’s Proms performance of Myaskovsky’s Silentium in 1929?). The status of Brian as one of the last century’s most individual composers is further reinforced.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. As on previous Dutton releases, the sound yields admirable detail within its spacious sound balance, with John Pickard’s notes as extensive as they are informative. A worthwhile coupling of these contrasted yet characteristic works from different periods of Brian’s output.

Richard Whitehouse

BBC Symphony Orchestra & Martyn Brabbins – Havergal Brian’s ‘Sinfonia Tragica’ + Rubbra & Grøndahl

martyn-brabbins

Richard Whitehouse on the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Martyn Brabbins (above) in a concert recorded at the orchestra’s home in Maida Vale

Rubbra Symphony No.11 Op. 153 (1979)

Grøndahl Trombone Concerto (1924)

Brian Symphony No.6 Sinfonia tragica (1948)

Jörgen van Rijen (trombone), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

Maida Vale Studios, Tuesday 11 October

The BBC Symphony continues to schedule some of its most distinctive concerts at its Maida Vale studios, and this afternoon saw Martyn Brabbins at the helm for a sequence of English and Danish music – all being pieces that are rarely, if ever, encountered in UK concert halls.

When Edmund Rubbra’s Eleventh Symphony received its premiere at the 1980 Proms, it must have felt appreciably more distant in aesthetic than it now does. Yet timelessness was central to the composer’s music; nowhere more than this 18-minute summation of both his symphonic and orchestral thinking. Its two continuous sections – a ‘moderate’ Andante, then a ‘calm and serene’ Adagio – offer only incremental expressive change, though the cumulative emotional impact as Rubbra evolves intervallic motifs via a seamless process of developing variation is undoubted; as also his fashioning of alternately diaphanous and granitic instrumentation. This latter was superbly rendered by the BBCSO, with Brabbins attentive to the music’s wealth of detail and its by no means untroubled emergence towards an eloquent plateau of tranquillity.

jorgen-van-rijenNext came a welcome revival for the Trombone Concerto by Launy Grøndahl, best known as a conductor (he premiered Robert Simpson’s First Symphony in Copenhagen) but who, on the basis of those pieces to have been recorded, evinced a modest while appealing compositional talent.

The outer movements of his concerto alternate between trenchant and lyrical ideas, the latter having a deftness to offset the hints of rhythmic stolidity elsewhere, but it is the central Andante – in its initial blues-inflected theme and resourceful deployment of piano – that most readily confirms its composer’s prowess. Here, as throughout the piece, Jörgen van Rijen (above) was unfailingly perceptive – underlining the extent to which Grøndahl, a violinist by training, had mastered the technical range of an instrument whose overall potential remains to be realized.

During the break, Van Rijn performed Slipstream by the German-born composer and metal guitarist Florian Magnus Maier (b1973) – its interplay of live playing and recorded repetition, via a loop-station operated by the musician, affording a fresh twist to Reich-style minimalism.

Brabbins has championed Havergal Brian extensively on disc; his live advocacy so far limited (!) to a revival of the Gothic symphony at the 2011 Proms. At just under 20 minutes, Sinfonia tragica comes near the opposite end (albeit conceptually) of his orchestral output. Envisaged as the prelude to an opera on J. M. Synge’s Deirdre of the Sorrows that was soon abandoned, it was not incorporated into his canon for two decades, yet its symphonic status is not hard to discern.

The BBCSO duly had the measure of its progress, as unpredictable as it is inevitable – from the fugitive gestures of its opening section, through the (surprisingly?) long-breathed melodic writing at its centre, to the eruptive activity and stoic processional of its final pages. A persuasive reading of a piece that ranks among its composer’s most immediate utterances.

Indeed, this was a persuasive concert overall – one that made light of the turgid accusations sometimes levelled at Rubbra, or the unplayability too often associated with Brian. Hopefully the BBCSO and Brabbins will continue their exploration of this rewarding music at future studio concerts.

This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 during November – further details to follow