On record: New Philharmonia Orchestra / Sir Charles Groves – Havergal Brian: In Memoriam & Gothic Symphony Part 1 (Heritage Records)

New Philharmonia Orchestra / Sir Charles Groves

Brian
In Memoriam (1910)
Symphony no.1 in D minor, The Gothic (1919-27) – Part One

Heritage Records HTGCD172 [59’31”]
Producer Robert Simpson

Recorded 10 October 1976 in live performances at Royal Albert Hall, London, UK. Released by arrangement with BBC Studios, with funding from the Havergal Brian Society

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The Heritage label renews its archival coverage of Havergal Brian with this disc of works given at the last concert of those centenary events in 1976, including what is still the only professional account of Part One from the Gothic Symphony heard separately, as sanctioned by the composer.

What’s the music like?

Following three concerts at Alexandra Palace, this final one took place at the Royal Albert Hall. even if a planned performance of the Gothic had to be shelved through financial considerations, a second half featuring Berlioz’s arrangement of La Marseillaise and his Symphonie funèbre et triomphale was no easy option. At the helm was Charles Groves who, having recently given the Ninth Symphony at the Proms, proves a Brian interpreter of real perception. Such is evident in his account of the tone poem In Memoriam, among the best of its composer’s earlier works and unheard for almost 55 years. Whether prompted by thoughts as to the end of an era, or by more personal considerations (its initial title having been ‘Homage to an Artist’), the trajectory of its three continuous ‘scenes’ from impulsive vehemence, via searching contemplation, to sustained affirmation is a striking one made more so through the finesse of Brian’s tonal thinking and his resourceful scoring. These are qualities to the fore with Groves’s interpretation, as convincingly shaped as it is eloquently rendered, and most likely the finest that this work has so far received.

If the performance of Part One of the Gothic Symphony is not quite as good, it more than makes the case for this to be heard as an autonomous entity. Tempi are slightly more measured overall than those of Sir Adrian Boult (Testament) or Martyn Brabbins (Hyperion) in their live readings at the same venue, but this enables Groves to wrest unity from the three movements – not least by bringing those extremes of motion and mood of the Allegro into closest accord, while ensuring a cumulative momentum across the whole. The Lento has all the necessary ‘expressiveness and solemnity’, and at a speed flexible enough to contain its volatile progress towards a powerfully rhetorical climax then a lingering postlude. The Vivace more than fulfils its function as a finale: Groves is mindful to integrate the increasingly disjunct scherzo-and-trio episodes, then keeps a firm hold on its explosive central outburst and surreally imagined ‘night flight’, on the way to a peroration of a grandeur intensified by its tonal audacity and afforded pathos in its limpid coda. That the rather bemused applause has not been retained is maybe of no consequence in context.

Does it all work?

Yes, given Brian always did things his way so that his music often pivots between the visionary and the reckless, yet one where he is almost always justified. Certainly, Groves’s In Memoriam is preferable to the well-paced if technically limited account by Geoffrey Heald-Smith with the City of Hull Youth Symphony Orchestra (Cameo Classics), as also the capably played if most often stop-go approach of Adrian Leaper and the National Symphony of Ireland (Naxos). There is no other version of the Gothic’s Part One, in which Groves’s trenchant advocacy vindicates the decision.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. The (unnamed) remastering engineer has done an admirable job of enhancing the BBC sound, not least in minimizing the bronchial audience contribution on that autumn evening now almost 45 years ago, and John Pickard’s booklet notes are a model of reasoned enthusiasm.

For further information on this release, and to purchase, visit the Heritage Records website. Heritage also offer a recording of Brian’s first opera The Tigers here, and the first commercial recordings of the composer’s music here

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