BRIAN: Symphony No. 10 in c (1954). English Suite No. 3 (1919-21). Concerto for Orchestra (1964). Symphony No. 30 in b-flat (1967).
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins.
Dutton Epoch CDLX 7267 TT: 64:49.

Landmark disc in the history of Brian recordings. An old man, I'd like to see all 32 Havergal Brian symphonies recorded before I die. By my count, 13 wait in the wings. For some reason, the British musical landscape is mainly feudal in nature. One name at a time dominates everybody else. Britain has had a surfeit of wonderful composers who couldn't get a break. Brian, who lived into his 90s, had the misfortune of writing at the same time as Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Walton, Britten, and Tippett. So we know Elgar but not Parry, Britten, but not Simpson, Walton but not Bernard Stevens, and so on. Furthermore, I believe that the one piece by Brian most people know of, even if they haven't heard it, the "Gothic" Symphony, with its huge length and force requirements, cut like a two-edged sword. It got his name out there, but it also scared away musical impresarios. Ironically, the "Gothic" is a one-off, as one could reasonably assume.

The symphony seems central to Brian's output, at least to me, but perhaps that thought arises only because I don't know much more of Brian's catalogue -- the operas or the choral music other than what occurs in the symphonies. The chance of my hearing any Brian work in concert runs from slim to none, so recordings assume great importance. I can't call Brian a great composer, mainly because I can't say that of any composer, since I have no idea of the criteria for artistic greatness. I can tell you what I like and why and how much.

Composers with an individual musical point of view attract me. Brian certainly has that. His music comes across as an odd combination of Elgar, Mahler, Schoenberg, and something absolutely his own. Furthermore, he never baldly steals. Even when you recognize a musical source, you also hear a unique twist. Furthermore, Brian never fell back on a manner. All the symphonies I've heard strike me as unique, like those Vaughan Williams. Although you may recognize "fingerprints," I don't think it fair to say that there's such a thing as The Brian Symphony. He had a 40-year symphonic career, with at least two long breaks. Over time, he changed. Brian critics talk about three phases: from the up to the Twenties, the Twenties through the end of World War II, and a final phase. Some writers break up the last phase into two somewhere in the Sixties, so we wind up with a total of four. On this CD, we get works early, middle, and both parts of late.

In five movements, the English Suite No. 3 should come across as uncomplicated, but doesn't. Musically, it poses few problems. Emotionally, it raises a host of them. In his liner notes to the recording, Brian expert Malcolm MacDowell calls the work "ironic" and "satiric," but I certainly don't feel that. Some movements do get "angry," but I can't refine that emotion any further. Still, what's anger doing in an essentially pastoral suite? The suite's character also changes a little more than halfway through. Fun and games get laid aside for more disturbing matters.

" Ancient Village" opens the suite with music more modal than I'm accustomed to from Brian. MacDonald thinks it "burlesques" the pastoral works of Butterworth and Vaughan Williams, but I disagree. To me, it beautifully evokes "time's long ago." "Epithalamium" begins as a delicate Morris dance and becomes increasingly rowdier and boozier until the wedding party crashes. A sad solo fiddle winds the music back down to a quiet fade and return to the Morris dance. "Postillions" -- a postillion rides and guides the left lead horse of a team drawing a coach, often a mail coach, especially (though not always) when the vehicle has no coachman. It begins with a bouncy 3/4, inexplicably becomes extremely heavy, and then rides quietly into the distance in a substantial coda, which occupies a significant portion of the movement. The three sections seem almost surrealistically joined. Why the sudden heaviness? Why does it suddenly disappear? It may resemble Elgar's "The Wagon Passes" from the Nursery Suite, but something bizarre remains.

Brian then throws in a surprise with the fourth movement, "The Stonebreaker." A stonebreaker did just that, pounding up large rocks, usually for paving roads -- a punishing job usually done by the desperately poor or, in the United States, by convicts. "Career" stonebreakers didn't live all that long. The movement joins together the following elements: a chorale tune for the stonebreaker, almost Russian in its sadness; frenzied runs, perhaps representing the desperation of the work; angry outbursts from the full orchestra. The movement seems almost misplaced in a "light" suite, but it functions as a slap in the face, a call to wake up and look past country quaintness. After this, the final movement, "Merry Peasant," sounds at least a little goofy. It comes across as an English equivalent to a Mahler Ländler -- fragmentary, even zany, angry, and at times so untethered harmonically that MacDonald's description of the suite as "ironic" probably arises from this movement alone. It ends with the feeling of stopping short of a sheer drop.

After the Second World War, Brian stopped composing for a couple of years. Then, he reports, "the muse returned with a rush." He composed seven more symphonies, four operas, and other major stuff in the next decade, from the age of 71 to 81. The symphonies are shorter than his previous examples and, I would add, "denser" and more Modern. I find in them an even greater emphasis on counterpoint and independence of each part. Many of them are in one long movement, but the design and shape of each differ from its brethren. Some of them run fairly short but nevertheless satisfy our expectations for a symphony. Like a piece by Webern, their impact far outweighs their duration.

The Symphony No. 10 appeared in 1954. It's a one-movement deal that nevertheless breaks into equivalents of theme and variations - slow movement - scherzo - finale, at least on paper. I don't hear it that way. First, the allegro isn't all that quick and it blends into the adagio, which seems more like a coda than a full-fledged statement in its own right. Similarly, the scherzo slips into the finale. Finally, the entire symphony grows out of the opening material, almost like Roy Harris's principle of autogenesis, but not quite that insistently. The main idea is a minor-third scale fragment, ascending and descending. Brian uses a large orchestra, including thunder and wind machines, less for volume than for color variety. Brian's instrumentation usually fascinates me. It's not "colorful" in the sense that Ravel's or Stravinsky's is. However, it seems unique to the composer, who creates arresting textures at points throughout the score. A stormy con fuoco scherzo crashes in, followed by a respite featuring a tenderly lyric violin solo. This gets tossed aside for a grim, grotesque march, a "barbaric" update of Elgar. The music, however, becomes increasingly reflective, and the solo violin returns for a lonely fadeout.

Brian admitted that he could have just as easily called the Concerto Orchestra a symphony, although it features a lot of contrast by orchestral section. It also seems less influenced by the Classical-Romantic symphony and more by the Baroque concerto grosso. Brian, already a very contrapuntal composer, turns up the dial for this work. My overall message from the score is "Counterpoint and more counterpoint." Furthermore, many turns of phrase sound like an evocation of Handel or the Brandenburgs. But unlike, say, Stravinsky, Brian doesn't turn his back on an essentially Late-Romantic viewpoint. Again, the one-movement score falls into subsections, although here the subsections retain their identity since they discourse on new themes. On the other hand, toward the end of each section, a transitional passage introduces themes for the next section. Again, we begin with another barbaric march, unfolding in layers of independent voices. Again, unusual textures abound, like a piccolo, snare, and muted trumpets, usually in the interstices between the big thematic statements. A substantial "cantabile" section follows, yet with no significant let-up in the amount of independent activity going on. A brief, phantasmagorical scherzo (at one point, I think I hear a deliberate reference to "Carnival of Venice") leads to a short conclusion.

According to MacDonald, Brian for most of his long life wanted to write an opera on Sophocles's Oedipus at Colonus. However, he doubted he could secure copyright permission for the translation he wanted to use. In the end, the opera, unfortunately, came to nothing. However, MacDonald speculates that some of the music might have found its way into the Symphony No. 30.

That's as may be. I myself don't hear Sophocles, but an even deeper exploration of Classical contrapuntal forms and techniques than in the Concerto for Orchestra. But don't be misled. The symphony rises above such abstraction. Indeed, I think it one of the most powerful of the composer's symphonies -- that is, the ones I've heard. Part of this stems from the creation of a strong and strange emotional world -- harsh, witty, and almost pitiless, except by implication. Again, I sense a great deal of anger in the music. Its two movements play without a pause between them. As in the Concerto for Orchestra, counterpoint rules. The first movement begins with what seems to be a passacaglia, but it quickly turns into something much freer, with suggestions of imitation peeking through the texture and then sinking back again. Part of this effect arises from Brian's love of switching instruments in mid-thought -- reminiscent of Schoenberg's Klangfarbenmelodie. Toward the end, the movement parades a series of phantoms before us, mainly via Mahleresque march. Sharp, even violent contrasts pile up. For instance, a string quartet gets steamrollered by a brutal orchestral tutti. The second movement begins with a delicately sardonic march, with percussion prominent. Nevertheless, we do not lose the main contrapuntal thrust of the symphony. The tone becomes more savage as the symphony proceeds. Even the "tender" respites sound like lament and shock, and other quiet moments remind one of scenes from The Twilight Zone. The movement winds up with a return to the opening, this time in a mood of deliberative summing up. One final strong dissonance cries out before the symphony ends on an open fifth.

Martyn Brabbins and his Scots give fine performances of these knotty works. Of all the items on the program, only the Tenth has received a previous recording -- by James Loughran and a school orchestra. The orchestra did well for students, but it couldn't convey anywhere near the full power of the score. It's a pleasure to hear the work played by professionals in very good sound. Brabbins "gets" Brian, and you can hear (although your eyes may cross) the composer's elaborate counterpoint percolating through the texture.

S.G.S. (September 2011)