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)

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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

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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

In concert – Bristol University SO / John Pickard – The Vision of Cleopatra

bristol-uso-pickardImage credit: Bhagesh Sachania

Eve Daniell (soprano), Rachael Cox (mezzo-soprano), Angharad Lyddon (contralto), Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (tenor), Alexander Learmonth (baritone), Bristol University Choral Society and Symphony Orchestra / John Pickard

Victoria Rooms, Bristol; Saturday 12th March, 2016

Beethoven Mass in C, Op.86 (1807)

Brian The Vision of Cleopatra (1907)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The regular concerts given by the Bristol University Symphony Orchestra can be relied upon for innovative programming, as was proved this evening with the first performance in 107 years of the most ambitious earlier work by Havergal Brian – his cantata The Vision of Cleopatra.

The work was finished in 1907 and premiered at the Southport Festival two years on, where it enjoyed a succès d’estime but no further performances. Loss of the orchestral score and parts during the 1941 Blitz made any revival impossible until 2014, when John Pickard undertook the new orchestration that received its first hearing tonight. Brian’s orchestral pieces from the 1900s offered a viable point of departure, though Cleopatra is hardly more indebted to these than to Pickard’s own large-scale works. The outcome is highly audacious within the context of British music from this period, notably for its taking on board those possibilities opened-up by Richard Strauss in his controversial opera Salomé – unheard in the UK until 1910, but which Brian had most likely studied from the score and absorbed its innovations accordingly.

Whatever else (and for all that Gerald Cumberland’s rather tepid libretto tries hard to suggest otherwise), Cleopatra is no anodyne Edwardian morality. After the orchestral Slave Dance that functions as a lively overture, the cantata unfolds 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, in its turn, by an expansive aria for the former; divided by a speculative choral interlude and concluded by a Funeral March of stark immediacy. So systematic yet by no means inflexible a formal trajectory serves to predicate expressive continuity over scenic evocation, a sure pointer to Brian’s future as a leading mid-century symphonist who operated at an intriguing remove from the Modernism of this period.

The Vision of Cleopatra may have fazed its first-night performers, but there was little tentative or underwhelming about tonight’s rendition. Eve Daniell was sympathetic as Iris and Rachael Cox even more so as Charmion, complementing each other effectively as the retainers, while Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts made an ardent showing as Antony whose tendency to histrionics was understandable. Angharad Lyddon, though, stole the show (as she needed to) as Cleopatra – bringing real eloquence to her climactic aria while evincing palpable depth of tone that made light of Brian’s exacting demands. Bristol University Choral Society sang with evident lustre, and Pickard secured a committed response from his forces – alive to those audacities that the composer doubtless put into his orchestral writing and which were grippingly to the fore here.

The first half had seen a welcome revival of Beethoven’s Mass in C, a work destined to live in the shadow of its ‘solemn’ successor but whose almost cyclical constuction is allied to a generosity of spirit in itself affecting. Some fine choral and solo singing – notably from the baritone Alexander Learmonth – was allied to a perceptive interpretation which (rightly) put emotional emphasis on the Benedictus, most enquiring of this work’s sections whose repose communicated itself to tonight’s listeners as surely as it eluded those hearing it 109 years ago.