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


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.



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

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