BRIAN: In Memoriam (1910). Festal Dance (1908). Symphony No. 17 (1961). Symphony No. 32 (1968).
RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra/Adrian Leaper.
Naxos 8.572020 TT: 59:37.

Powerful, elusive, idiosyncratic. Naxos has released a spate of Brian, mainly re-issues from their Marco Polo label. I've heard disquieting rumors that they have no plans for more. Still, this constitutes a significant milestone in the progress of Brian's reputation. Dutton, at significantly higher cost, has also issued more Brian, with few, if any, duplications of what's currently available.

British composers labored under a disadvantage in the 20th century because there were simply too many good ones, even great ones, to compete against. In his long life and career, Brian strove for recognition against Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Walton, Britten, and Tippett. A country where Gustav Holst becomes an afterthought should indeed count its blessings, but Holst did not suffer alone. I wish I could propose Havergal Brian as The Great Unsung, but I know at least two others. Perhaps one day we will be learn to hold more than one or two great artists in our heads at a time.

Most consider Havergal Brian's 32 symphonies central to his achievement as a composer. I'd agree, but only because I know so few of his non-symphonies. Since the chance of my hearing a Brian work in the concert hall rapidly approaches zero, I will likely depend on recordings. For many years, I heard Brian in less-than-professional performances, often on pirated LPs. Even this didn't put me off Brian, although it gave me such a poor sense of his music. For one thing, I didn't realize how contrapuntal it is. Brian expert Malcolm McDonald quotes the composer in his liner notes: "the greatest of modern composers are those who have shown the greatest talent in continuous contrapuntal writing." Yet Brian never falls into the trap of equating counterpoint with goodness. After all, plenty of boring fugues have numbed our ears. The trick is to make music with the counterpoint.

In Memoriam, the earliest work here, comes from Brian's mid-30s. Written in three movements -- or, as the composer puts it, three "scenes" -- it consists essentially of three slow marches, the second and third in triple time: a solemn, somber procession; beautifully restrained consolation a meditation, using the rhythm of the opening horn solo in Brahms's second piano concerto, which reaches a blazing climax early on and slowly fades out. To some extent, the music stems from an Elgarian base, particularly in its virtuoso treatment of the orchestra, but the differences from Elgar take on greater importance. In his Pomp and Circumstance Marches, Elgar speaks largely publically, with the personal more or less "between the notes." Brian's mind pursues paths too quirky ever to be called "public." If Elgar is Tennyson, Brian is Browning.

Brian wrote the Festal Dance as part of a Fantastic Symphony. He decided to break up the movements, the first becoming his Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme ("Three Blind Mice"). Festal Dance, the scherzo, had to do with the farmer's wife, and you can hear ghosts of the tune flitting through Brian's original material. The dance begins with a killer percussion section, years ahead of its time, leading to a fandango. Apparently, the farmer's wife lives in Andalucía. A goofy fugue (marked "misterioso") follows, with hints of "Here We Go Gathering Nuts in May" rising to prominence, before the fandango returns.

The two symphonies come from Brian's late period. In three continuous movements, Symphony No. 17 runs a bit over 13 minutes, and the proportions are weird -- roughly 8 minutes, 3 minutes, 2 minutes. The overall impression it gives is less a symphony than a fantasia, although you can argue the point. The design stands among Brian's most eccentric -- which is saying something -- three larger sections joined together with transitional passages which may or may not have anything to do with the movements they join. The symphony opens with a meditation from the solo violin. This gives way to a highly contrapuntal march. Throughout his composing career, marches obsessed Brian, just as they obsessed Mahler, although Brian, I think, writes more kinds of marches. Toward the end, the solo violin sneaks back in, helping to dial down the activity and to lead to the slow second movement, mostly a slow march. Toward the end, a skirling passage for winds and percussion, thematically related to nothing in particular, breaks in, and we find ourselves in an allegro finale, a waltz whose rhythms stem mainly from the counterpoint of independent lines -- a true tour-de-force. Once again, Brian's handling of percussion is both arresting and unique. A march coda brings us to a savage conclusion, brutally chopped off. In this score, Brian to me works as associatively as Ives -- leaping from one idea to the next (and there are a lot of ideas) -- although with more normative rhythms and phrases.

Brian's final symphony, No. 32, appeared in the composer's 92nd year. It was his last score, period, and he had four more years to live. He stopped writing, as he said, because he couldn't think of music. The muse had been pretty constant, to say the least, when he was on the boil. However, he had had major blocks in his career before, which lasted at least a couple of years, in the Forties and Fifties. Here, he finally ran out of time. Nevertheless, he had no way to know that he had written his last, although he knew the odds were against him. So those who expect a grand summing-up, like the Beethoven or the Bruckner Ninths, will be disappointed. Nevertheless, this is a corker of a symphony, in four movements, almost classical in its formal design, and anything but in its actual working-out. Again, counterpoint rules. The first-movement allegretto contrasts two main subject groups: an opening that moves in a way reminiscent of the Brahms Second Symphony; a perky idea dominated by woodwinds, which turns menacing when given to the brass. The second movement, adagio in name only, sounds more like a continuation of the second subject group of the first. Nevertheless, I find it more enigmatic, not least because of its erratic stops and starts. The third-movement scherzo reminds me of a Nielsen scherzo, but grittier. A vigorous finale follows after a slight pause. Brian expert Malcolm MacDonald senses it more as a coda, and I agree. Indeed, I'd go further and call it a "two-movement symphony in four movements."

Leaper and the RTÉ do better in the earlier pieces. They play well throughout the program, and given Brian's intense counterpoint, that means a lot. For years, Brian fans had to put up with accounts barely adequate, for the most part. These readings stand at a professional level, at least, sometimes higher than that. Nevertheless Brian's symphonies really demand many different interpreters. There's room for many different takes. They're so psychologically gnarly that no one conductor will exhaust their meanings. I also think of them, despite the stylistic differences between the early and late, as a whole, like the Beethoven cycle of piano sonatas. But fat chance any one conductor will ever learn all of them. Kudos to Naxos for their current releases. I hope they make it to all 32 symphonies.

S.G.S. (October 2011)