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