On record – Havergal Brian: Symphonies 3 & 17 (New Philharmonia, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Stanley Pope) (Heritage)

brian-heritage

Brian
Symphony No. 3 in C sharp minor (1931-2)
Symphony No. 17 (1960-61)

Ronald Stevenson, David Wilde (pianos, Symphony no.3); New Philharmonia Orchestra (Symphony no.3), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Symphony no.17) / Stanley Pope

Heritage Records HTGCD153 [67’26”]

Recorded 12 January 1974 and 23 June 1976 at BBC Maida Vale Studios, London

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Heritage has followed its release of Charles Groves’s centenary accounts of Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony (Part One) and In Memoriam with this first official issue of the composer’s Third and Seventeenth Symphonies, as given in their first performances under Stanley Pope.

What’s the music like?

Although he left few commercial recordings, the London-born and Geneva-based conductor Pope (1916-95) was highly regarded in music from the 19th and 20th centuries. These studio performances are among the best premieres that Brian received, not least the Third Symphony which at almost 55 minutes is his lengthiest after the Gothic. Little is known about its genesis, but the 20-minute opening movement has a complexity and emotional breadth that suggest a suitably high-flown inspiration. Two pianos mark off crucial junctures in its formal trajectory, besides enriching the texture vis a concertante underpinning such as surges forth in the stark chordal cadenza prior to the coda. Had Brian stopped there, this would still have been among his most ambitious symphonies, and the three remaining movements afford intrigues aplenty.

The slow movement continues in similar fashion in its combining of textural audacity with a melodic immediacy (notably for flute and violin) as makes this an ideal entry-point for those new to Brian, and though its expressive ambience is by no means easy to define, a feeling of heroic fatalism comes to the fore during the climactic stages and in a coda of moving pathos. By contrast the scherzo is as direct in its appeal as anything that Brian wrote, not least a trio whose ingratiating charm provides suitable contrast with the boisterous music on either side. With its slow overall tempo, the finale builds in sonorous paragraphs – to whose Brucknerian grandeur Pope is especially attentive – toward a stormy culmination and heightened recall of earlier ideas; thence into an epilogue whose unequivocal finality is rare in Brian’s maturity.

Nearly three decades later, the Seventeenth Symphony offers a very different perspective on Brian’s creative outlook. Last in a series of five single movement such pieces, it is markedly elliptical as to formal unfolding and expressive follow-through – yet, even more than with its masterly predecessor, a continuous and metamorphic ingenuity is perceivable right from the pensive introduction then throughout the three- (or even four-) in-one sequence that follows. Confident and yet ruthless in its triumphalism, the coda is decidedly music for its ‘present’.

Does it all work?

Almost. The Third is the most inclusive of Brian’s orchestral symphonies in its intricacy of texture and (ambivalent) range of expression. Drawing four such diverse movements into a cohesive whole is no easy task, but Pope succeeds more completely than does Lionel Friend (Hyperion) and probes more fully than Adrian Leaper (Naxos) the disquieting obliquities of the Seventeenth. The playing of the New Philharmonia and Royal Philharmonic orchestras is testament to the skill of British players in tackling such complex music on limited rehearsal.

Is it recommended?

Yes. Heritage has done a fine job in opening-up the 1970s sound (the BBC’s notoriously dry Maida Vale studio) and John Pickard contributes his usual insightful notes. The 1974 account of Brian’s choral Fourth Symphony would be an ideal next candidate for such rehabilitation.

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You can discover more about this release at the Heritage website, and you can read more about Havergal Brian here

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