Symphonies – no.8 in B flat minor (1949); no.9 in A minor (1951); no.22 in F minor, ‘Sinfonia Brevis’ (1964-5); no. 24 in D major (1965)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (nos.8,9 & 22), London Philharmonic Orchestra (no.24) / Myer Fredman
Heritage HTGCD146 [77’46’’]
Broadcast performances from St John’s, Smith Square, London on 28 March 1971 (nos. 9 & 22) Maida Vale Studios, London on 27 June 1971 (no.8) and 1 April 1973 (no.24)
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
What’s the story?
Heritage continues its releases of pioneering symphonic broadcasts by Havergal Brian with this issue of performances from the 1970s conducted by Myer Fredman, two of these being world premieres in what was a productive decade for furthering the music of this composer.
Born in Plymouth and later resident in Australia, Fredman (below) (1932-2014) set down Bax’s first two symphonies, together with Brian’s Sixth and Sixteenth Symphonies (Lyrita) that remain among the finest such recordings. He also made studio broadcasts of the present symphonies which, as John Pickard indicates in his detailed booklet notes, are among the most revealing of Brian performances from the period either side of the composer’s death – making them a natural inclusion for a series such as that now undertaken by the enterprising Heritage label.
What’s the music like?
This was the fourth hearing of the Eighth Symphony, coming after two live broadcasts with Adrian Boult in 1954 and one by Rudolf Schwarz in 1958. In many ways a template for what came after, its single span elides sonata-form and multi-movement design with a cohesion the greater for its overt unpredictability. The initial rhythmic figure (one of Brian’s most striking such openings) is not quite together, but thereafter Fredman exerts firm while never inflexible control over the interplay of martial dynamism and contemplative stasis, building its central climax superbly if losing momentum into the contrasted passacaglias – the second of which brings only a fugitive calm in its wake. Commercially recorded by Charles Groves in 1977 (EMI/Warner) and Alexander Walker (Naxos) in 2016, this work awaits public performance.
Preceded by live broadcasts with Norman del Mar in 1958 and ’59 (the latter now on Dutton), the Ninth Symphony features three continuous movements that outline a Classical framework. Fredman launches the initial Allegro with due impetus and charts a secure course through its quixotic changes of mood – the hushed transition into the reprise especially striking. He is no less focussed in a central Adagio whose musing reverie is constantly undercut by militaristic aggression, a reminder Vaughan Williams’s Sixth had appeared three years before, while the final Allegro tempers its festive cheer with a plaintive interlude which even the jubilant coda only just outfaces. Surprising that since Groves’ public performances in Liverpool and at the Proms in 1976, then his commercial recording a year later, this work has remained unheard.
The remaining performances are both world premieres of works which form outer parts of a symphonic triptych. Lastly barely 10 minutes, the Twenty-Second is (as its subtitle implies) the shortest of Brian’s cycle if hardly the least eventful. More impulsive than Lázsló Heltay with his 1974 recording (CBS/Heritage), let alone Groves in his spacious 1983 performance, Fredman teases out the eloquence of the initial Maestoso through to its fervent culmination, then brings a deft nonchalance to the ensuing Tempo di marcia such as makes contrast with its baleful climax the more telling. Brooding and fatalistic, the coda ranks among the finest passages in post-war symphonic literature and Fredman captures its essence. Walker comes close with his 2012 recording (Naxos), but this account effortlessly transcends its 52 years.
A pity Fredman never tackled No. 23, who three Illinois hearings by Bernard Goodman in October 1973 make it only the Brian symphony premiered outside the UK, but he did give the Twenty-Fourth. After its intense then impetuous predecessors, this one-movement piece feels more expansive for all its methodical ingenuity. The martial opening section is adroitly handled so its breezy extroversion reveals unexpected inwardness towards its centre then at its close; a whimsical and lightly scored interlude making way for the (relatively) extended adagio which, in its searching if often equivocal repose, brings both this work and those two before it to an affirmative end. Walker’s 2012 account (Naxos) enables all three symphonies to be heard in consecutive order, but the insights of this first performance remain undimmed.
Does it all work?
Almost always. Fredman has an audible grasp of Brian’s often elusive thinking, so that these performances unfold with a formal inevitability and expressive focus often lacking elsewhere. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra betrays passing uncertainty with Brian’s more idiosyncratic touches, whereas the London Philharmonic Orchestra copes ably with what is among his most approachable later symphonies. Heritage has done its customary fine job opening out the sound, and anyone who knows these performances through the pirated Aries LPs will be delighted at the improvement.
Is it recommended?
Indeed. Those familiar with these symphonies from the studio recordings will find Fredman’s interpretations an essential supplement. Hopefully this series will continue apace, ideally with John Poole’s 1974 performance of the Fourth or Harry Newstone’s 1966 take on the Seventh.
For purchase information on this album, and to hear sound clips, visit the Heritage website. For more on the composer, visit the Havergal Brian Society – and for more on Myer Fredman, visit a dedicated page on the Naxos website