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

Vilde Frang, Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Peter Oundjian – Viennese classics in Dundee

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Ben Hogwood visits Dundee’s magnificent Caird Hall for an trio of Viennese works given by violinist Vilde Frang, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and principal conductor Peter Oundjian
Caird Hall, Dundee, Thursday 12 November

Webern Langsamer Satz (1905), arr for string orchestra by Gerard Schwarz

Brahms Violin Concerto (1878)

Mozart Symphony no.41 in C, ‘Jupiter’ (1788)

What a magnificent setting for a concert. Dundee’s Caird Hall will be well known as an attraction by the locals but it bears repeating that the venue is an excellent acoustic for classical music, as the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conductor Peter Oundjian observed in his brief talk to the audience before the concert.

The high ceiling was perfect for the burnished ardour of Webern’s Langsamer Satz, written while the composer was still in a tonal way of thinking and in thrall to his hero Mahler. Although normally heard through the intimate medium of the string quartet, this arrangement, made by the conductor Gerard Schwarz for string orchestra, worked extremely well, and the RSNO strings made a beautiful and clean sound that left us in no doubt as to the composer’s feelings towards his cousin – who was later to become his wife.

The Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang then joined the enhanced orchestra for another Viennese piece, Brahms’s Violin Concerto­ – and in the process she built on a relationship already established with the erte concerto last year. Frang is not a player prone to exaggerated gestures or one-upmanship on the orchestra and this was the ideal approach for the Brahms, where the two forces work together and where the orchestra often have the better tunes. Oboist Adrian Wilson, acknowledged by Frang at the end, was superb in his slow movement solo, and while this was perhaps a more ‘classical’ reading looking back towards Schubert, Frang took the difficult and extended solo passages, particularly the cadenzas, by the scruff of the neck and refused to let them go.

Completing the Viennese trio was Mozart’s Jupiter symphony, his last – with Oundjian sensibly reducing the forces in the name of clarity. This was an extremely fine performance where the rapport between the RSNO and their conductor was abundantly clear, and where he ensured that Mozart’s deceptively simple themes were beautifully communicated and developed. A graceful minuet was notable for the floated violin delivery, though in the trio the minor key harmonies sowed the seeds of disquiet.

These were emphatically blown away by the finale, one of Mozart’s greatest achievements as a composer in his successful dovetailing of all five themes in a brilliantly worked fugue. Oundjian took this at a daringly fast tempo but we never lost sight of the tunes, the orchestra working incredibly hard to keep their lines clear and crisp. The enjoyment of all – players and audience – was clear, for this was music to banish even the squalliest of November nights.